Books I Read, July 21 2016

Two days before my 32nd I decided the thought of facing a birthday in my usual environs was once I couldn't stand, and it turns out flights to Bogota are shockingly cheap, and so I hopped a plane down to Colombia. I have this long-standing policy that when traveling, I try and bring along books I couldn't bring myself to read if I was sitting in one place, so most of the last few weeks were spent walking along the city's and beaches and occasionally mountains of northern South America, eating street food, drinking cocktails, and reading impenetrably dense works of fiction, none of which I really enjoyed. Then I came home and promptly wrote the first half of this blog post, really, sincerely meaning to put it up on my website, because I have a website, goddamn it, and I might as well put something up on it. But things kept getting in the way; very long walks across New York, for instance, and this new book I've been working on, and drinking with friends, and occasionally chatting with a girl. And the list of things I read kept getting longer and I kept feeling less inclined to write these reviews, until there was a big stack of literature waiting to be shelved and I finally bowed to the wait of pressure. Update:: Actually, I didn't post this on time, so it's all about a month late. But then again, who cares.

The Night Manager by John Le Carre – look, you can't blame John le Carre for the Cold War ending, but the fact remains that his brand of endlessly elaborate, shades-of-gray political thrillers worked a lot better before the fall of the Berlin wall. There's nothing wrong about the Night Clerk except that anyone remotely familiar with anything else Lecarre has written can figure out what's going to happen from about 5% of the way in. Amoral politicians, shadowy bureaucrats, femme fatales, action scenes written in a fashion which denudes them entirely of excitement, they're all there. Which isn't to say it's bad, really, it isn't, it's quite readable, I finished it on the flight down to Bogota in pretty much one go. But it isn't exactly good, either, which is why I pretty much immediately forgot everything about it.

Beware of Pity Stefan Zweig – Having read this and the Chess Story, I confess I'm curious as to why this sudden critical rediscovery of Zweig has taken place. He's not bad, exactly, but there's nothing that I've seen in his writing which absolutely demands we all go back and take a look at him. Is it just illegitimate nostalgia for the last days of the Dual Monarchy? If so, I'll take Sandor Marai (read Embers if you haven't, lots of fun.) Anyway-- Beware of Pity of Guilt is aptly named, the story of a young cavalry officer who gets embroiled into a love affair with a crippled girl because he lacks the moral strength to cause her emotional injury, the end result of which is predictably terrible (all of this is revealed in the prologue, so I don't think I'm offering any spoilers). The introduction heralds Zweig for his familiarity with the then little known theories of Sigmund Freud, and for subverting the Christian paradigm of personal sacrifice as being an inevitable good, but that doesn't quite hold water for me. The notion that guilt could be a vice, one that a strong man ought rid himself of, goes back literally to Classical Greece (for Aristotle, the purpose of tragedy was to purge the viewer of their unhealthy inclination towards excessive sympathy), and any early 20th century intellectual worth his salt would have been familiar with Nietzsche and his whole strength through weakness thing. During his life, Zweig was famous mostly for his non-fiction, so maybe I'll pick up one of those before writing him off completely.

Petersburg by Andre Bely – I saw something which called Bely the Russian Joyce, and I was like, yes, sign me up for that one. But after six hundred pages, six hundred pages which went by like a root canal performed by a dentist with delerium tremens, I wish I hadn't. Not that the analogy is entirely inapt – both writers have a fascination with place, and with language at its most basic, that is to say with sound, and both enjoy intertwining earthy, almost silly sorts of humor with immense erudition. But I loved Ulysses and I kind of hated this, and I'm going to try and sort out why in the rest of this review.

Here's the thing about Ulysses, to go on a long digression, and why so few books which are compared to that masterwork actually deserve the analogy. Ulysses is, of course, unimaginably complicated—to understand it in its totality would require months of study, careful research, knowledge of many dozens of other authors, etc. But—and this is what makes the book so exceptional—even a much more casual reading will still reveal essential aspects of Joyce's message, a core understanding which makes you want to go back and put in the immense effort to more fully appreciate the complexities of the work. Fine, only an exceptional genius could easily comprehend (for instance) the night town chapter, but even an individual of my own modest capacity comes away from, say, Mollie's soliloquy in awe of its beauty and profundity. It's like one of those rubbery things you put in a bathtub that expand to a hundred times their own size, except the water is your intellectual effort. I'm not great at metaphors.

Petersburg by contrast, and frankly many other books in the modernist line, fail to accomplish this. I will not second guess Nabakov, who rated the book the 4th best novel of the 20th century, but there is very little to this which a casual reader will enjoy. The language is deliberately stilted to a maddening degree, the characters are not intended to be fully rounded. There is a certain amount of pleasure which can be derived from trying to uncover the little linguistic tricks which Bely incorporates into nearly every paragraph, but if you're anything like me you'll swiftly grow bored of it. I don't doubt that there is a core of brilliance here, but nothing about the book made me want to struggle to uncover it.

The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla – man, I hate writing negative reviews, it's tiring and it makes me feel nasty, even though the last three authors are long dead. Pla, apparently a giant of Catalonian literature, kept an intricate journal of the 22nd year of his life, writing down his experiences when an Influenza plague forced him to leave Barcelona for his small coastal village, as well as his time as a law student once the disease subsided. There is no plot to speak of, and nothing really happens, and that's a tough task to set oneself, and to surmount it one would need to be an excessively brilliant writer, and I didn't quite feel that Pla meets this high bar. For every bit that was funny, or engaging, or lovely sounding, there is a lot of gossip and X and things that I had no particular interest in. In fairness, at one point towards the end of the book Pla goes on a long soliloquy requesting that any theoretical readers consume the Gray Notebook in the same fashion which Pla created it, that is to say, in small bursts and over the course of months and even years. Not having abiding by his request, it may well be illegitimate for me to criticize it. I'd check something else out by him at some point in the future.

Wylder's Hand by J. Sheridan Le Fanu – It's peculiar how badly pulp literature ages. I'm not sure why that is, exactly, but here we go. A hundred and fifty years ago everyone in England had read Walter Scott, he was absolutely ubiquitous, he was more than a writer he was a cultural reference point. If you wanted (so I gather) to make fun of someone's intellectual pretensions you might say of them that they were big Walter Scott fans, that kind of thing. These days, who on Earth has even read the Waverly novels? Anyway, Wylder's Hand – it's a murder mystery, basically, with a touch of the supernatural. If condensed to about half the length—which, actually, wouldn't be all that difficult—it would be entertaining. The writing isn't bad and there's some pathos to it. But it's 500 pages instead of 200, and a lot of them don't add anything to the plot, and I was bored quite a bit, which is acceptable if you're reading, say, a cultural history of Victorian-era Britain but not for pulp. Skip.


The Hustler by Walter Tevis – Loved this. Loved it. The perfect antidote to the last five. The story of Fast Eddie's attempt to become the greatest pool player in America, a hill that he must climb over the corpse of Minnesota Fats (the names, right? The Names!) Fast, sharply written, a meditation on, basically, the Will to Power as expressed over a pool table. The character sketches are divine, I spent a lot of time reading it and laughing loudly in bars. Definitely check this out.


Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – As a general rule, books which become as popular as Gone Girl became are terrible. There is a simple enough reason for this – most people do not read books, or read very few books, and so those books which become ubiquitous are being consumed by many people who have very little practice in the skill of reading comprehension (and it is a skill), and so require a simplicity of language, character, and plot which mandate the books themselves must be trash. Dan Brown or The Girl Who... books are good example of absolute shit which is being swallowed by huge portions of the populace.

Gone Girl is not a good example of this. Gone Girl is, absolutely and unreservedly, fucking awesome. I would go so far as to say Gone Girl is one of the best noirs that has been written in the last half century, a devastatingly nasty, surprisingly traditional work of jet black pulp. To find something this mean and this good you pretty much need to go back to Jim Thompson, and there isn't much praise I can give higher than that. I won't bother with a discussion of the plot or whatever, since you've probably read it and if you haven't I don't want to spoil anything. But I will say a bit about it; Gone Girl works so well because it is built around archetypes and social dynamics which are familiar to the reader; the type A woman and her loser husband, the attempts of the former to make the latter palatable. It's genius (apart from the writing, and the pacing, and a great number of other things) is that it stretches these cliches to their extreme but still recognizable. It is shocking that Gone Girl became so popular, not only because it is so well-written, but because it's mean as hell, and it's mean in a recognizable way. Excellent, read if you haven't.

The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – My first Ballard! Late to the game, I know. Anyway, it's fabulous. Dreamlike, erotic, exciting, working as an adventure novel and as a philosophical discursion. Strange and sad and melancholic, as soon as I read it I ran out and bought a bunch more. Ballard deserves the accolades he gets.

The Day of Forever by J.G. Ballard – Yeah. Not bad, but actually not nearly as good as the two novels I've read. I did really like the one about the guy who has his town in the box, but a lot of them seem like kind of b-grade Twilight Zone stuff. Is there a stronger collection of short stories than this that someone can recommend?

High Rise by J.G. Ballard – Hahah! Hahah! Jesus, this was mean. Wow. Astonishing that Gone Girl was not the nastiest thing I read this month, but then again not much can rival this minor masterpiece. The story of how the population of a yuppie apartment building descending to unimaginable (though Ballard imagines them) depths of depravity and atavism, immeasurably foul and yet beautifully written, a critique of modernity which is stunning in its brutality. Wait, they made a movie out of this? How the hell could you make a movie out of this? It seems impossible. Anyway, I stayed up all night reading it and then couldn't sleep when I was done. Great stuff.





Books I read May 10th, 2016

Spring has been playing us all for mugs here in New York, showing up just long enough to get you to break out your sandals, then disappearing once your landlord had turned the heat off. Not one to be shut inside at the first drop of rain, I've been doing my forced march through the various boroughs, sticking my head in strange corners of the city, and writing (do check out the cover release for A City Dreaming, out next Fall!). I got nominated for a Hugo, which it turns out these days is a dubious distinction. I hung out with a bunch of old high school friends. I'm going to take an impromptu visit to Columbia on Wednesday, because flights were cheap and I've never been there and I don't like to be in the US on my birthday. Anyway, the last couple of weeks I read...


The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel – An epic narrative recounting the attempt of a community of Armenians resiting their forced evacuation and ultimate destruction by the Ottoman authorities in the opening days of the first World War, by all accounts 40 Days of Musa Dagh was one of the earliest works to introduce to the Western world what would come to be known as the Armenian Genocide. It is epic in the classic sense, that is to say, vast in scope and scale, and also fairly action packed – much of it could double as an adventure book, were the circumstances not to horrible. It's odd that often you end up having more to say about a book that you disliked than about a book that you did. Musa Darh is a very good book, the writing is strong if a bit simple for my tastes, and the narrative complexity is impressive—Werfel often zigs when you think he's going to zag, and I found myself being surprised at numerous points in the book by some or other outcome. If you have it in you to read 1000 pages about the Armenian genocide, by all means, have at this one.

Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The first of the Martin Beck books, others of which I have read out of order though I confess I think I liked this one more than the others that I picked up. In many ways this is the classic procedural novel, and there are many elements which it seems to have introduced broadly to the genre. Beck as a protagonist is spare almost to the point of nullity—we see him only by silhouette, and obliquely. Indeed the novel generally is terse enough to thrill a Spartan, with no wasted words or irrelevant details. Unfortunate that so much later Scandinavian noir – I'm looking at the rancid pile of trash which is The Girl Who... books—so manifestly fail to do everything which Swjowall and Wahloo do here so well. Strange to think that, in the decrepit state of modern crime, this would almost certainly fail to find an audience. There are no long scenes of sexual perversion, the villain is, as villains tend to be, small and stupid and mean, there is virtually no action. I suppose you can count that as a backhanded recommendation.

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb – What fun! Gorgeously written, strangely compelling. Erotic, nostalgic, kind of impossible to describe in a useful way. About a Hungarian who takes a honeymoon trip to Italy with his wife, only to discover that having done so rips off his thin shred of bourgeoisie normality and plunges himself into the self-destructive passion of his youth. Also, the Nazis are coming. This was a bad summary, it's a hard book to summarize. Just read it.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – The second of the Martin Beck books. Everything that applies to the previous review applies to this one as well. If you liked the first one, you'll like this. If you didn't, go put your hand on a hot stove, or read a James Patterson book, whichever seems likely to be more painful.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge – Would anyone seriously dispute that the Russians have a genius for the novel which exceeds every other race on the planet, particularly when one considers the general weakness of the the Russian educational system and economy, historically and up to the present? Of course, Serge wasn't exactly Russian, indeed he wasn't exactly anything, a perpetual iconoclast, as all decent writers ought to strive to be. The story of how the murder of a high-ranking Soviet official ends in one of Stalin's many purges, and the individuals who get caught in the net, Serge combines an extraordinary sense of empathy with an unerring moral instinct, providing truly three-dimensional representations of very bad people, making them believable without ever forgiving their evils. I actually didn't find this one quite as compelling as Unforgiving Years, the oblique, difficult, and nightmarish quality of which is only hinted out here. Still, very strong, definitely worth reading.

Fake I.D. by Jason Starr– A very well done Jim Thompson pastiche. Credit where due, Starr has the classic noir line pat—stupid person makes bad decisions leading to an inevitable collapse. It's nasty and dark and well-written and compellingly readable, but it also hews so closely to the traditional run of these things that it's sort of hard to get super excited about it. It almost seems more like a writing exercise rather than an independent work. Not at all bad, though. I'd keep my eye out for more from the man.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers– Right. I think I have to come to accept that I just like Declare a lot more than Tim Powers other books. That's not really his fault, but here we are. Anubis Gates is not bad, Powers is enormously creative, and he has a good instinct for creating disturbing and horrific imagery. Still though, like some of his other stuff, I can't help but feel that the set up is a lot stronger than the ending. Pretty much the entire last half of this is a series of fairly elaborate set-piece battles, and honestly I get bored pretty quickly with that kind of thing—the hero dodges the bullet and leaps over the railing into the bar below and then kicks a guy and then dives through an opening and the fireball goes over his shoulder and so on and so on and so on. I like my action scenes tighter and nastier. Perhaps that's just a person peculiarity, but here we are. I found myself skimming a lot towards the end.


The Life of Lazarillo De Tormes by Anonymous – As I gather this is one of the first truly satirical novels in the history of fiction, about a poor peasant's quest to find a decent master. A series of vignettes poking fun at his social superiors and, in a deeper way, calling into question the morality of the entire system of Imperial Spain. Is it funny? Not really, most things aren't funny half a millennium after they've been written. More interesting as a historical curiosity than on its own merits (to most current readers, or so I suspect) but still it's only about a hundred pages so you could do worse than while away a beer with it.

Accepting a Hugo Nomination

If the infrequency of my blog and facebook posts, tweets, memes, pictures of cats doing silly things, etc, was insufficient evidence, I really don't get this social media/internet fandom thing. Mostly it just seems like a lot of folk bloviating on Facebook, and I prefer to do my bloviating in person, like at a party or a bar when you can pin a guy down and really annoy him. The whole Hugo controversy has been, historically, never a source of any particular concern for me. Occasionally I would brush up against it in the form of a facebook message or a blog post, would retreat rapidly as if touching a hot even and think to myself, 'thank God I'll never need to involve myself in that business.'

It is a good thing, a healthy thing, to be reminded every so often of how easy it is for life to make you a liar.

Some background: I wrote a book called The Builders, about a team of woodland animals called together for one final act of nefarious violence, sort of a Peckinpah Redwall. I like to think that it is funny, mean, and well-written. It is, indisputably, utterly apolitical. It sat on my hard drive for a while, and then the kind folk at bought it for the new novella list they were putting together. People seemed to sort of like it, and it sold pretty well for a novella, and fans sent me cool art in the shape of the characters, and I cashed a check and felt generally good about myself. Maybe six weeks ago my editor at Tor contacted me to let me know I was part of the Rabid Puppy Hugo slate for best novella. (If you don't know who the Rabid Puppies are, I'm not going to get into it here. Google 'Hugo controversy', or better yet, go outside and take a long walk, or read a book, or hug a child. Your child, I mean. Or an appropriate child at least, not just anyone's child. Where were we?) My reactions were something like: “Who? Them? Why? Aren't they boycotting Tor? Do I know what the world 'boycott' means?” My team at Tor suggested it was best to just ignore the thing, and in deference to their greater expertise on the matter I decided to do just that, which played well to the broad apathy which is my defining characteristic. In retrospect I probably wish I had asked to be taken off said list, though apparently Alistair Reynolds did just that and had no luck. The matter seemed irrelevant when, midway through April, I had yet to be contacted from anyone at the Hugo's. It seemed my dreams of putting a silver phallus on my desk would have to be pushed back another year.

You can imagine my surprise when my twitter feed blew up Tuesday with the announcement that the Builders had been nominated in the best novella category.

That brings us to the present. It's been, frankly, a frustrating week. An essentially private person, I resent intensely having been dragged into a controversy which I had no role in creating and little interest in generally. My initial reaction was to withdraw from the contest immediately—I wrote a really nasty post to this effect, condemning all involved parties, raining rhetorical fire down from the sky, etc. 'A pox on both your houses! You won't have Dan Polansky to kick around anymore!' So on and so forth. But upon consideration, and in consultation with some of my fellow nominees, I've decided to stay in, which seems to be the least-worst option. I'm reasonably convinced it minimizes the harm which the organizers of the slate intended to do to the award itself. If you read the Builders, and you thought it was deserving of a Hugo, by all means, vote for it. If you preferred the work of one of the other fine nominees, vote for that. If you want to no-decision the lot of us, that's entirely understandable as well. As far as I'm concerned, that's the end of a matter which has already cost me more in terms of time and energy than I would have preferred to offer to anything that isn't my work, family, or friends.

But before I sign off, a quick word to those who are upset about the whole thing; don't let it get to you too much. Every moment you spend being angry, every furious blog post, every back and forth with a moron over twitter, is a small victory you have offered to your opponents. It is to you to decide if you are offended, angered, insulted. A righteous soul needs not concern themselves with the doings of fools.

As to the rest of you, the Oxford English Dictionary defines boycott as: to refuse to buy, use, or participate in (something) as a way of protesting : to stop using the goods or services of (a company, country, etc.) until changes are made.

Just, you know, as a head's up.

Books I read April 19th, 2016

Right. So the last two weeks Spring kind of finally came to the city, which actually didn't do much for my reading habit, because it became more fun to wander through distant corners of New York than it was to force myself to do much reading. I make myself write, that's just part of the gig, part and parcel, indivisible, that holy grind, that screeching monkey, God bless him, I'd be mad on my own. But yeah, apart from wandering around the city and putting some finishing touches on The City Dreaming, which is my soon to come work of profound genius, I read the following books.

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebold – I was walking home late one night from the harbor, and the gray fog rolled off the water, obscuring all the light of the city and leaving nothing but a great dim blankness in its place. Past the project houses on Atlantic that looked like nothing so much as as a vast corpse, further reminder of the dim futility of all of mankind's works, grandly conceived, laboriously acted upon, ultimately trivial against the endless yawning chasm of nothingness which rests, ever present, beneath us. I heard the sad, subdued laugh of a child, and I thought then of my old friend Alastair Cornwall, who had been my neighbor in a small, dilapidated hotel in the southwest of England, many years ago, after I had left the asylum but before I had entered the sanitarium. Alastair was a very talented musician, and in time he would grow to great fame for the curious pieces of music he created, which were written entirely for violins the strings of which have broken and for clarinets which had left to rust in an October rain storm. Of course Alastair did not live to learn of his own fame, taking his life one evening with an antique blunderbuss while the autumn boughs had turned bright red and gold, and leaving me with his sheets of music, all uncatalogued, as well as a photo album which contained many pictures of him, in some of which he was smiling, though it was only in film that I ever saw him do so...

Actually I liked this book, but, you know, Sebold kind of only has the one note.

Fair Play by Tove Jansson – Oh, I loved, loved, loved this book. A short hundred pages and I finished it one afternoon in the park, and I carried it around that evening waving it in front of me and hoping someone would ask about it so I could talk about how much I liked it, but no one did, so I'll have to tell you. A series of vignettes about (basically) Tove and her long-time lover, each small chapter is a small episode in the life of two people who have worn a groove in each other's lives after long decades of love. Of the things they take for granted about one another, of the small ways they hurt and help each other, of the kindnesses and misunderstandings. In short, it's about true, lasting long term love/. Every bit seems so real and lived in and true, and also Jansson is really a marvelously understated story-teller, allowing each point to hit with subtle clarity. It's gorgeous, it's a minor masterpiece, it's one of the best things I've read in a very long time. Loved it. Touched.

The Eve of St. Venus by Anthony Burgess – Funny! Slight, but funny. About a man who accidentally marries foam-born Aphrodite on the night before his wedding. It's small but it makes you laugh on near every page. Burgess is a talented comic writer. I often wonder why the mid-century Brits were so much better at this than everyone else, but never really came to a conclusion.

Books I Read This Winter (Part 4)

We are very nearly, brace, yourselves I know this is going to be a lot for you to handle, but we are very nearly at the end of my long backlog of books that I read this winter and didn't get around to reviewing because I was traveling/lazy. Which is good because we're getting towards spring here in the Apple, which means I walk more and write more and listen to more music and wave to more handsome young woman and so on and so forth. Except that actually we had this unfortunate cold snap the last couple of days, had to bundle up tight but it will likely be the last time the weather will be apporpriate to eat Ramen for a while. Anyway, here are some books I read, feel free to not read this, and to go do something more valuable with your time, like hugging your children or staring at a wall.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – If one picks up whatever 1000 page opus the critics have dubbed this months novel of the century, the one that pretty girls in stockings and dashing your men in berets are very conspicuously reading on the L-train and at happy hour, and one discovers that it is a mound of feces doused in diesel and lit on fire, one is unsurprised. People are not very intelligent, and the intelligent ones least of all. But somehow one feels differently when it comes to books widely regarded as classics – surely our parents were wiser than we, one hopes, surely the collected judgment of the ages cannot be wrong.

All of which is to say that I was very much expecting to like Sense and Sensibility. I will go one further – I was quite looking forward to liking Sense and Sensibility, if for no other reason than to spite my 16 year old sell who loathed Pride and Prejudice, there being few sensations in life more pleasant than contempt for a previous personal iteration.


In the credit column for Ms. Austen – she could give a good burn. There are some very sharp lines in here, so subtle that you miss the insult for half a paragraph after you read it.

In the debit column is literally everything else.

Her characterization is absolutely deplorable. Every person is introduced with a thumbnail sketch which lays out in numbing detail the handful of qualities which will define every interaction with said character for the remainder of the book. Elinor is sober and serious! Marianne is headstrong and passionate! Willoughby is handsome and rakish! If you managed somehow to skip one of these introductions, worry not, they will be repeated a rough 100 times throughout the course of the narrative. The plot is at once mind-numbingly tedious and absurdly melodramatic. Each surprise is telegraphed with a bluntness which would shame a third-rate mystery writer, for who, having been told that Willoughby is untrustworthy literally a dozen times in the first 50 pages, would be surprised that his union with poor Marianne does not come off as hoped? For that matter, the tension in the book is largely maintained by one of those absurd Victorian-era conceits whereby two characters cannot stand to have a simple conversation with one another about the immediate events of their life though those two characters have the most intimate relationship with one another (See also: Victor Hugo). Even by the bizarrely formalized etiquette of the era, surely it is not so terribly pushing the lines of gentility for Elinor to at some point go, 'yo, sis, you married to that dude, or what?' But it never seems to happen.

In short, Mark Twain and I are of one mind on the issue – 'I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book '

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro – This is my first Ishiguro, and the only thing I knew about it going in was that there was some dispute when it first came out over whether it was 'really' genre fiction or something else, which is the sort of question than only an absolute idiot cursed to live forever and spend that sad eternity in a small room without internet access would bother to spend time discussing. But since we're on the subject, yes of course it's genre fiction, albeit of a very elevated type, which is to say the narrative is firmly in the fantasy mold but there's more to it then the usual 'wouldn't it be great if I was the chosen one, and no one at work could ever yell at me, and I had a pretty girlfriend.' I quite liked it – written with a lovely fairy tale style in which things don't quite make sense but somehow come together all the same, using a fascinating hybrid of Arthurian myth and pseudo-history, relevant to topics both political personal, sad, beautiful, mysterious, and with some fabulous sword fights. Really, really good sword fights. I like the idea of Ishiguro off in some remote English village and thinking, hmmmmm, what would a fight like this look like, and how would the duel progress, and the different stances, and so on. Definitely worth picking up.

The Black Envelope by Norman Manea – I've written before in this space about how foolish it is to decide a book is bad because you didn't understand it, and more generally of the terrible (and terribly frequent) error in imagining that no one could possibly be smarter than you are. Black Envelope is a difficult novel to review, in so far as despite a serious, determined effort, large portions of it remained essentially obscure to me. Part of that is deliberate – to the degree that there is a plot, large portions of it are never explained, nor does it come to any sort of concrete resolution. Likewise, the reader is obviously meant to be experiencing, to some limited degree, the same feelings of frustration, futility, and lingering madness are as the characters, laboring beneath the oppressive regime of Romanian communism. Still--is it fair to complain about a book being too gnomic, when that is so clearly the author's intent? If so, then I am hereby officially complaining about it. What I got of the book did not make me sufficiently enthusiastic to give it a second reading which might have clarified more of it. Or to put it another way – there is surely something of value here, but you are almost certainly not going to be the one to find it.

Classic Crimes by William Roughhead – So this was a lot of fun. A collection of true-crime essays, mostly from the 19th century, mostly taking place in Glasgow. Roughhead writes in a style which is at once erudite and readable, and anyone who enjoys outdated slang will have a field day here; I particularly enjoyed Swarfed, meaning fainted, and Kitchen Fee, referring to the ends of leftover food given away to the poor as charity. The crimes are morbid, cruel, and fascinating, lovers poisoning each other slowly with arsenic, the brutal murder of a brother by her half-sister, and Roughhead's discussion of the court cases these crimes give rise to, the frequent incompetence and occasional excellence of the investigators, the fearless disinterest of the accused, the brilliance of some or other lawyer, are a pleasure to read. Recommended if you have any interest in this sort of thing at all.

The Nimrod Flipout: Stories by Etgar Keret – My second collection of Keret's short stories has made me a believer, this guy is the truth. A series of strange, sad, funny short stories, rarely amounting to more than five or ten pages, almost every one of which is a gem. Keret has a real feel for the young male psyche, and many of the stories in this book amount to examinations of masculinity through the lens of a fantastical premise. I hesitate to discuss any of them in detail because they are so brief that a thumbnail sketch serves to ruin the punchline, but suffice to say it is magical realism at its best, using an absurd premise to effectively observe or comment on some aspect of human existence. Keret succeeds in creating entire worlds in very short spaces, doing more with a handful of paragraphs than many writers do with entire novels. Absolutely worth checking out.

The Duel by Casanova – I've never ready any portion of Casanova's biography, though this brief snippet, recalling a pistol duel he fought with a Polish noble while in exile from his native Venice, really made me want to check the entire thing out. It reads like an amoral adventure novel, with the added joy of Casanova's well-earned cynicism about the world and the sad, proud, stupid, creatures who inhabit it.

Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi– A fun little children's story, differing from the Disney version we're all familiar with in so far as Pinnochio begins the story as a horrible little bastard, only gradually improving as a result of his frequent, largely self-inflicted misfortunes. Like all good fantasy, nothing in it ever makes sense, but it doesn't make sense in an entirely understandable way, if you can dig it. I'll read it to my nephew when he's old enough to sit sill for five minutes at a time.

Bunny Lake is Missing by Merriam Modell – The story of a young, single mother in New York, desperately trying to convince the police and various other (male) authorities that her young daughter has been kidnapped, three-quarters of the way through I was ready to anoint this book a work of genius. Sharp, tautly written, disturbing in the extreme, leaving the reader less and less certain about the mental state of the protagonist, making us uncomfortable with our inability to trust her. If this has been a work of 'literature', that is to say, not initially intended as a mass market paperback, and therefore a book which needed to work itself into a comfortable narrative framework, I imagine the author might have felt more comfortable dropping us off a cliff at the climax. Alas, it being what it was the whole thing wraps up in a way which is at once a) absolutely incoherent and b) entirely in keeping with the traditional gender norms which the rest of the book implicitly and explicitly subverts. Read the first 150 pages and then go do something else.

The Door to Bitterness by Martin Limon – Yeah, not bad. There's an unfortunate tendency to herald crime novels in foreign settings simply for being based in an area which the reader might be unfamiliar with (see the atrocious Mapuche, most of Scandanvian noir, etc.), at the expense of narrative, characterization, etc. But everything here is serviceable is not exceptional, and the set-up – the heroes are military police in the US army stationed in South Korea in the 60's – is legitimately interesting. I'd pick up another if I found one.


Books I Read This Winter (Part 3)

I am getting as tired of writing these are you are of (not) reading them. What is it that keeps me doing these review? Just some peculiar, unfortunate tendency on my part towards cataloging everything I do? Am I secretly a hoarder, with last week's bowel excretions neatly labeled in jars in my closet? How did we get in this direction? Can I write exclusively in interrogatives? Did I drink several IPAs before writing this?

Dunno, probably, no, dunno, no, yes. What follows are the books I read, roughly, since returning from Africa at the end of February till like last week.

Mapuche by Caryl Férey – This book was just a steaming pile of shit, no way around it. Absolutely rank – it's bizarre the degree to which literary mediocrity can be forgiven if it's sort of nominally in the service of a leftist ideal. Don't take that last sentence as evidence of any particularly political leaning on my part. Anyway, this thing is just awful, it makes Girl With a Dragon Tattoo look like high literature by comparison. Maybe not quite. But they have a lot in common – a foreign setting; in this case, Buenos Aires. A weirdly outdated political background; the Dirty Wars of the 70's and 80's which, look, if you were unaware of it the proto-fascists were awful and to the degree to which the US provided support both tacit and outright, that's pretty shameful, but on the other hand, it is the rough equivalent of writing a thriller set in DC in which the bad guys are Ollie North and the other Watergate cronies, not exactly cutting edge. Sexual politics; this is a book which nominally stakes out feminist territory but also has just a ton of sexual violence towards women, intimately described, to the point where it's hard not to feel like you're just reading chapters of BDSM erotica. And, most importantly, aesthetics, in so far as every line is badly written, the dialogue is atrocious, the characterization is beyond one dimensional, the mystery itself is non-existent, violence is used again and again to lazily resolve conflicts. It's just awful, stay away from it.

The Ancient City by Fustel De Coulanges – This one was pretty fascinating, actually. The essential idea is that no one living in the modern age (although actually the book was written in the 19th century) can adequately understand the thinking of the citizens of early Classic Greece and Rome, whose lives were entirely structured around a very primitive form of Indo-Aryan ancestor worship. To Coulanges's mind, every facet of early Classical civilization needs to be explained from this fundamental core, that is to say according to sort of magical thinking about the ability of the dead to bless or curse their descendants, and a reverence for the hearh and home which is in no way symbolic but entirely concrete. All the duties and responsibilities of the citizen grew out of the initial concept of this priesthood, in which the male head of the household is the only person capable of performing the obeisances and sacrifices required to satisfy the dead. It's hard going but extremlely interesting, and to my very limited knowledge of that period of history, seems coherent, but to be blunt I am nowhere near sufficiently versed in Classical theory to know if it is still held in high regard. Anyone want to help me out on this?

The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to Ad 1300: Volume 1 by Romila Thapar – Pretty much what the title says. Reasonably readable given the complexity of the subject matter.

King Charles III of Spain by Sir Charles Petrie – A reasonably competent history of one of Spain's relatively few reasonably competent Kings. How did Spain manage to take over most of the world having had like, three monarchs that weren't complete shit in their entire history? Anyway – apart from a tendency towards long, unrelated digressions about British diplomats credentialed to the court at Madrid, and an exaggerated view of the importance of Spain during this ear (mid-late 18th century) this was fine. If that doesn't sound like an overly passionate recommendation, I guess it probably isn't.

The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History by Robert Darnton – Essentially an attempt to recreate the mindset of the French proletariat and petit bourgeoisie during the 18th century. I thought it was enjoyable and interesting but then I love this sort of investigative history. Although I will admit the subject is a bit abstract and I can imagine for a lot of people it would be dull to tears. But screw those people, I dug it.

The Police of Paris 1718-1789 by Alan Williams – An interesting topic which is lamentably undercut by the author's unfortunate tendency towards an ornate, even rococo, academic style. A lot of simple sentences made opaque. Which is too bad because there's a lot of fun stuff in here regarding Parisian coppers in the years before the Revolution, during a period of time when they were basically responsible for overseeing all the features of civil government in the city, from trash collection and torch lighting to the censorship of books and putting out fires. It could certainly have benefited from a bit more by way of anecdote by then, as we established in the first sentence, this seems very deliberately to be written in a fashion so as to squeeze all the fun out of the topic. The flaws of modern academic writing are so peculiar because they are learned failures, that is to say, no one starts out writing this bad. At some point, basically, entire generations of students are taken aside by some professor and told, 'hey bud, if you want to turn this Masters into a PHD you need to do a better job of making what you're saying less clear.' Still, not without its merits.

Envy by Yuri Olesh – Look, I've probably just read too much Soviet-era magical realism. Between this and The Foundation Pit and like a dozen other one's I can't remember, they've all kind of run together in my head. My fault entirely, the book deserved more diligent study, but I just couldn't bring myself to offer it right now. I'm sorry. I'M SORRY. STOP YELLING AT ME, PLEASE PLEASE STOP YELLING AT ME.

The Dark Tunnel by Ross MacDonald – Ross MacDonald is a fabulous crime writer, his Lew Archer stuff is right up there with Chandler and Hammet's best, but this book, a Nazi-thriller in the cheapest possible mold, is not very good. MacDonald presumably knew this as well, which is why it was originally released under a different name. It very much has the feel of something thrown together in about two weeks to pay off a bar tab. In fact, thinking up the circumstances of how so talented a writer ended up writing something of such abundant mediocrity is of more interest than reading the actual book. Maybe a relative had been kidnapped, and he needed a thousand dollars or they'd be shot? Maybe it was a bet that he lost? Maybe he met a young child dying of cancer who was like, 'hey mister, mister, can you write me a Nazi novel? One where an incoherent chase scene makes up most of the 2nd third of the book, and the ending is weirdly telegraphed? Cough-cough?' and Ross MacDonald, being a decend fellow was like, '...sure, Timmy' (the kid's name is Timmy) 'and then we'll get you that new lung you need. You''ll be out of here by Christmas!'

Also, I love how on the front cover of the Goodreads picture (not my cover, sadly) the tag line is 'The Story of a Homosexual Spy!'

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry – One of these books that you start and immediately know you're going to love, one of those books where you go, 'right, this is why I spend all of my time and most of my money reading.' What genre writing could be if we were all smarter than we are. Written in this bizarre but understandable future slang, the story of an imaginary city in a post-collapse era on the West Coast of Ireland and the criminal gangs which feud there. Violent, nostalgic, lovely, sad, beautiful, I just loved this book. You should absolutely read it. I wish I had gotten to it before I had written Low Town, I could have stolen a lot from it.


Books I Read This Winter (Part 2)

When I go traveling for long periods of time I like to take books I know I wouldn't get around to reading if I was in my normal environs, with the distractions of cell phones and internet and booze and pretty woman and so on. This is what I read while wandering through East Africa in January and February. Who cares about any of this? I dunno. I barely care and I'm me.

The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne– What's the point really in reviewing what is widely regarded as a seminal classic of Western letters? On the other hand, I read it, so, F-you. Montesqieu had the then revolutionary idea of basically writing down everything he ever thought, learned, or felt, a revolutionary concept in an age which put Classic and Christian tradition ahead of all other forms of thought. Little did he know that he was paving the way for the blogosphere, but then on the other hand he was also enormously clever, erudite, and experienced. I liked the chapter on dealing with death, and also thumbs.

The Decameron by Boccacio – Basically 14th century soft porn, often quite funny. It's always a hoot to see what previous generations thought was decadent, and what they could manage to get away with (incest, date rape, orgies, etc.) Also, he really hates the clergy, it's kind of hysterical. Every few chapters there's just a hundred word aside on how useless monks are.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray – Funny! Melodramatic! Bitterly mean! Frankly this era of English writing mostly doesn't do it for me (I just finished/hate Sense and Sensibility, more on that soon) but this is actually very sharp. Thackeray is the ancestor of Evelyn Waugh, and his contempt and affection for the bright young things of early 19th century London are well worth a read.

The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle – It's kind of interesting to read totally mediocre genre stuff of previous generations, just sort of as an artifact. But this book is basically pretty stupid. Doyle has done his homework and there are some interesting bits about monks, but it's mostly pure melodrama, and the characterization is shoddy as a tree house made by drunken children. It's basically just a bit pile of shit, but I didn't mind it while I was reading it.

The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis – A series of episodes in the life of the eponymous Maqroll, a sailor, traveler, vagabond, melancholic loser, occasional lover. Did I, alone on the coast of Kenya, in an old Swahili town near the Sommali border, while very, very sick from the sort of disease one gets in East Africa, have vivid nightmares in which I could not distinguish between things I had read in this book and the actual events of my life, until finally in the middle of the night I wandered down to the beach and found a Rasta to help me, talking to him in a mad sort of pidgin language and holding this book up as if it was some sort of aegis against misfortune, until finally he took my hand and led me to the one village shop which was open after dark and got me some water and a bottle of sprite? No comment.

But yeah, anyway, read it.




Books I read this Winter (Part 1)

Right – so I was keeping track of these for a while, and then I got lazy, but then at some point I remembered I had a blog, and that I might as well throw some nonsense in there about it, and also that I kind of appreciate having a record of things I read. Below are what I remember of the last 4 months or so worth of books. Why would this be of any interest to you? No idea.

The Confidence Man by Herman Melville – Melville's final novel, the catastrophic failure of which (apocryphal evidence suggests it only sold 300 copies in his lifetime) encouraged Melville to give up writing all together, Confidence Man, His Masquerade is now widely regarded as the first post-modernist text. One does not struggle to understand why it did not fly off the shelves initially – reading it is a difficult and exhausting exercise even today. A century and a half ago, when it was released, audiences must have been confused, infuriated, and alienated. Forgoing anything which could honestly be called a narrative structure, the book is essentially a series of dialogues concerning the nature of confidence and the degree to which humanity as a whole is worthy of that trust, dialogues which take place between a series of characters who may or may not be the eponymous con man, who himself may or may not be the devil, or perhaps god, or some kind of strange amalgam of the too, or something else altogether. His fellow interlocutors are themselves shifting and unclear, some representing historical/literary figures like James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and others possibly also serving double duty as the devil, or perhaps god, or some strange amalgam of the two.

It is a strange book . The dialogues themselves are, in and of themselves, rather terrible, written in a curiously stilted fashion. One senses that this is deliberate, and that the very awkwardness of the language and the logic is meant to draw attention to subtler puzzles within the book. The constant repetition presumably serves the same purpose, it and the 'off-notes' meant to jar the reader out of their normal style of reading and to offer a more nuanced thought on the framework of the book itself, on the characters and on the nature of literature itself.

Did I like this book? No, I didn't. I can appreciate how ahead of its time it was, and some of the oblique construction, but it was interminable and dull, and those mysteries and secrets which I could decipher did not ultimately make up for the rest of the time I had to force myself through it. Did I understand this book? Again, no, not really, or only to a pretty limited extent. To offer a serious critique of this book I would need to spend probably an odd couple of weeks giving it a line by line reading, complete with critical texts, and that's something I have no real interest in doing, as much because I'm pretty busy as because I just didn't find the book valuable/enjoyable enough on its own merits

One of my personal pet peeves, one of the things that annoys me most, is when one sees a review on goodreads to the effect of, 'I didn't get this book, the language was too complex, two stars,' that sort of thing. It takes a certain sort of an idiot to suppose it impossible that anyone could be smarter than them. I am not that sort of an idiot – there are some books that I read, understand completely, and loathe. There are others, of which The Confidence Man, His Masquerade is one, that I simply didn't put the effort and attention into to develop a serious understanding of (as an aside, this is one of the reasons I don't give any sort of numeric rating in these reviews). I don't honestly know if this is a good book or a bad book (putting aside the admittedly subjective nature of this question to begin with). I know that I didn't enjoy it, but that's not at all the same thing.

Persian Fire by Tom Holland – How many works of popular history do we need to dedicate to the Persian War? One more, apparently. Persian Fire is a first-class overview of one of the definitive conflicts in human history, nuanced, unbiased, giving useful background to the major players and the historical circumstances in which they lived. Of course, given that Herodotus is basically the sole source of all the information we have on this subject, you might as well just go read Herodotus and ignore the less plausible parts. But if you don't feel like that slog, this will serve.

High Wind in Jamaica by Ricchard Hughes – Hahahah! I loved this one. A vivid rebuke to the Victorian notion of childhood innocence, as well as a broader condemnation on the species entire. Also, funny, nasty, beautifully written, and surprising. A group of children are captures by a band of second-rate pirates off of the Jamaican shore circa 1880, and chaos and violence ensues, though not of the sort which one would expect. I can't imagine anyone wouldn't get a kick out of this, I certainly did.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – So this is the first Atwood book I ever read, and I gotta say, it did not blow the back of my head open. The writing is strong,the nested narrative is interesting, but taken as a whole it's a bit interminable. Really it seems like the better part of the first portion of the book, the long narration regarding the protagonist's childhood in a decaying mansion in rural Canada, could have been comfortably chopped. And the final reveal was one of those things that seemed kind of obvious to me from the beginning, almost to the point where one is confused as to whether the author was even trying to hide it. Probably a lot of this is having been regaled for so long with tales of Atwood's genius I found myself expecting something a little bit more exceptional.

Mystic Masseur by VS Naipaul – the story of a country Indian of second-rate intellect who, through genial good-humor and a serious of fortunate coincidences becomes renowned as a mystic healer and later as a political representative in post-colonial India, Naipaul's first novel is hysterically funny and vividly cruel. Naipaul is the essential misanthrope, a cultural chameleon who seems to find very little to like anywhere he visits, from Indonesia to India to Alabama. But he clearly reserves a special contempt for Trinadad, his country of birth, and the Indian population thereof, amongst whom he was raised. In this and the more famous House for Mr. Biswas he portrays them as being utterly ignorant and without principles of any kind. Naipaul's ear for dialogue and his sense for the essential hollowness of people's conceits are on full display here, although the relentless negativity does become, well, a bit relentless.

Angel by Elisabeth Taylor – the story of a genre writer in the early 19th century who manages to harness her tremendous self-delusion into a force which makes her one of the most popular novelists in the country, Angel's critique of the publishing industry, writers and humans in general is devastatingly funny. Admittedly being a part of this industry probably heightened the appeal, but any way you slice it this book is a minor masterpiece, and I have no damn idea why the author is not more famous. New York Review of Book Classics doing killer work, as ever.

Ubiq by Phillip K. Dick – So look, I didn't like this at all. Sorry. I know I'm supposed to, but I just didn't. This is the sort of mystery novel where no amount of close attention can explain what is going on at any point in the narrative, where you basically just have to wait until one of the character's comes out and explains outright what's going on, and then the final explanation is basically just, 'oh, hey, God did it.' Dick is imaginative but his ideas are all kind of half-baked, they don't really cohere into anything and he has the horrible and exhausting habit of having the last page of every book go, basically, 'Everything I told you so far in the narrative is a lie!' Which is like, great, thanks, can I have my three hours back? No? Shit.'

Basti by Intizar Husain – Written by, apparently, modern Urdu's most beloved novelist, Basti is a dream of Pakistan, from it's bloody birth in partition to the war which gave birth to Bangladesh. Dreamlike, evocative, tragic, all around excellent. Do check it out.

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney – Right. I read this months ago and now I'm kind of struggling to remember anything specific about it. The hero is very tough but also kind of literary, or philosophical. He is a good investigator but feuds a lot with the other cops on the force. Glasgow seems like a pretty shitty place to live. I must have liked it more than I'm remembering because I went out and picked up the next two in the series pretty quickly. The writing was better than the cliched description I just gave made it sound.

The Papers of Tom Veitch by William McIlvanney – Yes. Uhhhhhh... I think like a year has passed and he's divorced his wife at this point? Honestly for the life of me I can't remember anything about this. Glasgow doesn't improve much in the interim. Laidlaw is more Laidlawish. I dunno.

Strange Loyalties by William McIlvanney – Yeah, I think this was kind of a disappointment Laidlaw just kind of bitches endlessly about people and the system and blah blah blah. Why did I read all three of these in like a week last year? There must have been something I liked about them. Oh, well.

Actually, this just catches us up to Christmas. Shit. I'll get back to this at some point.

Books I Read 11/17/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This week I read:

The Rings of Saturn – Thanks to Stark Holborn for suggesting this/making for a melancholy Friday. A walking tour of the coast of England gives Sebold's nameless narrator the opportunity for flights of fancy centering, in a grand if oblique way, on entropy, on the collapse of all human endeavor beneath the implacable weight of time. Also on imperialism, war, evil, lots of shit. There's not really a plot per se but it makes for lovely, haunting, unhappy reading.

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon – wow, two negative reviews in two weeks, what a misanthropic prick I am becoming, I mean more so than usual. Then again, Pynchon hardly needs my praise.

Which is just as well, cause he ain't gonna get it. Bleeding Edge really crystallized to me a lot of the things I haven't liked about the other Pynchon books I've read. There's no denying he's got talent as a writer – the breadth of his erudition is impressive, and he's pretty funny. Some of his other tics –the oversize casts, his penchant for abruptly switching scenes – I find less impressive. But that's not my essential problem with Pynchon. My problem with Pynchon is, quite simply, I don't think he has fuck all of value to say.

Pynchon's abiding concern is with these infinitely vast conspiracies and the individuals who, consciously or unconsciously, struggle against them. The first time I read this, in Vineland I think or maybe Inherent Vice, I thought, that's pretty funny, haha, he's got a real talent for this wheel within wheel thing. The second time I read it I thought, OK, I got where you're going, not a fan of the CIA, Republicans are bad, we're all clear here, let's move along. The third time (I'm not counting V or Gravity's Rainbow which are a bit less on the nose) was Bleeding Edge, and I really fucking hated it. Unlike the top two Bleeding Edge deals directly with contemporary political events (the book is set around 9/11) and in doing so it revealed the fundamentally hollow nature of his worldview. Of course, Pynchon never goes so far as to outright posit that 9/11 was a conspiracy hatched by some faction of the US government, but then, Pychon never explains the underlying nature of any of his conspiracies, preferring to leave the reader with a vague soupy murk of suspicion that leaves the moral decency of his characters in sharper relief. He hints at a conspiracy behind the destruction of the twin towers, however, which is a) kind of insulting if you take it all seriously, but b) even if you don't, still highlights the unseriousness of Pynchon as an author.

Because here's the thing – Pynchon's conceit is bullshit. I wish there was some evil fat white man in a room somewhere dictating human events! It would mean there's a hand on the tiller, and someone has the power and incentive to keep the world humming along in its imperfect, flawed, cruel fashion. But there isn't, and no one does. Our leaders (yes, even the leaders of your disliked political party!) are not secret geniuses, nor are they being ordered around by shadowy men who are themselves secretly geniuses. It's just a bunch of arrogant, flawed, foolish men, making ill-considered decisions that don't benefit anyone because they misjudged the circumstances on the ground at the time. The US didn't go into Iraq in some secret double blind to bump up Haliburton stock, we did it because Bush had an image of himself as being the second coming of Churchill and he was too arrogant to spend some time reading up on the political history of the region he was about to invade. And we all went along with it because we were scared and angry and wanted to hit someone, especially if it actually wasn't so much us hitting someone as it was members of our all volunteer army – we got the best of both worlds, the feeling of self-righteous strength without all of that having to stumble around in the desert and get sand in our eyes.

Enough with the politics. My point being, this recurring theme of Pynchon is a lazy, inaccurate vision of humanity and human existence, doing nothing to further our understanding of the political order or of the reality in which we live. Sometimes it takes five books to realize you don't like a writer – it took me that long for Pynchon, but I'm tapping out here.

Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon – Yeah, fun. I mean it was OK. Maigret is tough and mean and fun to follow along with, but the story itself is kind of nothing and there are a lot of evil Jews running around doing their evil, Jewy business, and at points the whole thing got a bit too Bulldog Drummond for me. God I hate those books. Anyway. Still not entirely clear on why these are held in such immense esteem. Do they get stronger?

Books I Read 11/12/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This week I read:

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk – Fun! Just fun all around, Indiana Jones types wandering through Central Asia and snatching up the treasures of long lost civilizations. A quick and enjoyable read.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti – As a rule, I really don't like to write negative reviews. There are two reasons for this; the first is as a matter of aesthetic principal. As a youth I can remember thinking that the understanding/appreciation of an art form – what might broadly be described as 'having taste' – consisted largely of sharpening one's sense of contempt for the vast body of work in that particular form, and of being able to convey that distaste in a vicious and entertaining manner (we might call this the Pitchfork model). But in fact, this is the absolute opposite of what a true critical sensibility really entails – what would we say of a good critic who exclusively enjoys Italian food, or who loathes sushi? A competent critic is able to move beyond their inclinations to appreciate a wide variety of genres, to say, yo, Ghostface Killah is a hell of a rapper, and, also, Gillian Welch has a great voice.

The second reason is essentially personal. A sort of invisible line is crossed when you write your first book, and start to see your name on things, and realize, 'shit, these authors I've spoken of are not abstractions but concrete, living human beings, and not just targets of abuse.' It would be one thing if I were a professional reviewer, and responsible, at least in theory, to the people reading my reviews. But I'm not, and have no such obligation. I've had days made worse by a negative review of a stranger – not much worse, not dramatically worse, but still, slightly worse, and I would just as soon not pass that injury onward.

Also, as a professional, there are, shall we say, political concerns – either the target of your opprobrium is more popular than you, in which case your dislike is sure to be seen as a simple case of sour grapes, or the target is less popular, in which case you are acting as a bully, an abhorrent activity regardless of the circumstances. In short, I prefer only to speak ill of another author's work if they are a) dead or b) so popular as to make my dislike irrelevant, and preferably both.

So I can only hope that the release of Ligotti's works in this Penguin omnbius edition signals he has reached a level of success that the following not particularly kind review will have no effect on him or his career. (it helps also that he will almost certainly never read this).

Enough preamble. This is not at all a terrible book. If you were to compare it to every other work of horror released this year I feel confident it would be in the top quarter. But that's really about the best that can be said about it, in my own opinion. It is not groundbreaking, it is not brilliant, it is not even particularly excellent. Ligotti seems to operate entirely or almost entirely within the framework which Lovecraft devised, albeit with an improved level of prose (admittedly, damnation with faint praise). Virtually every tale in this collection might be summed up as 'too-eager seeker of esoteric knowledge falls afoul of alien forces which live just below the surface of the universe'. There are no surprises here – any remotely observant reader can deduce the ending of most of these stories from the opening sentences. At a certain point I started to find the thing kind of terribly repetitive, the endless descriptions of visions that can't be described/colors that can't be named/feelings that can't be expressed/nameless lands where shadows lurk/etc.

It is a constant source of curiosity to me whom the literary establishment chooses to laud as exemplary. There is something arbitrary, even absurd about it, like a vegetarian reviewing a steak house. How else can one explain the veneration of an utter mediocrity like Murakami, a second-rater in terms of prose, narrative and depth of thought? Or that Gene Wolfe has not entered the canon as firmly as Borges? Unfortunately, after reading this compilation I came to feel firmly that Ligotti is undeserving of the laurels currently being planted on him. One man's opinion, but there it is.

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary – a breezy, readable history of the Muslim world – indeed, perhaps too breezy. This is probably too extensive a topic to overview in so brief a fashion, and though Ansary does an admirable and even handed job of providing a broad overview of 1200 odd years of human history, at times, particularly as we get closer to modernity, I felt the subject was getting short shift. Also, I found the prose occasionally more talky than was appropriate, and I caught enough minor errors to worry about what I was missing (for instance – Ansary blames the Sepoy rebellion on the British greasing their rifle cartridges with the pork and beef fat, though in fact these cartridges were never distributed, and it was the Brits ham-handed response to the Sepoy's fear of this indignity which provided the spark for a long simmering powder keg. A small point, but not an irrelevant one.) In short, it's a good starting point for someone who has spent little time on the subject, but a more experienced reader would probably do better to look elsewhere.

Now I am Reading: The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebold


Books I read 11/4/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This week I read:

The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon – a slick little crime novel in the Raymond Chandler mold. Inspector Maigret of the Parisian police is a decent man in an ugly world, where the weak are oppressed by the strong, where sin follows us forever, where...right, you get the picture. But actually I love this kind of thing so I didn't at all mind this one. Cleverly plotted also, which many of them are not. I'll pick up the next when I get round to it.

Were there swords: No.

Endangered Species by Gene Wolfe – hey, did you know I was a Gene Wolfe fan? Well, you're about to hear it again. This is not at all the best retrospective collection of Gene Wolfe's stories (not shockingly, that honor goes to self-selected The Best of Gene Wolfe), and if you are new to Wolfe's short fiction you are better off starting there. All the same this is very,very strong, with barely a misstep in five hundred pages. The plaintive stories are sad and wondrous, the scary stories are brutal and nasty, all the stories are strange, clever, and utterly unique.

Were there swords: Here and there, I think.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – the tale of a revolution in a turn of the century bannana republic, and the eponymous (anti)hero is caught within it is fascinating on a number of different levels. Conrad is a keen observer of human nature at its most brutal and grand, and his genius lies in combining the modern psychological novel with the bones of an adventure story. Having spent much of his life as a sailor and general adventurer, Conrad's books have an authenticity that comparable works lack, and though he in fact never spent any time in South America, the cast of characters which populate this book seem realistic in their arrogance, foibles and heroism. Moreover the structure of the novel itself is peculiar, at times frustrating and times rather wondrous. Is is slippery and illusive, constantly expanding to describe the background and motivations of different characters, and it makes a deliberate effort not to provide the sort of narrative pay-offs which your typical book of this sort would offer. The first fifty pages are a bit of an up hill slog, but it pays off if you stick with it.

Were there swords: I dunno, I guess. I think this is the last week I'm going to do the 'were there swords' thing. This isn't funny anymore.

Now I am reading: Dunno, gotta head to the Strand tomorrow.

Books I Read 10/27/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This week I read:

The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky – This Dostoevsky character, I tell you, why hasn't anyone ever heard of him? Wait. What? Oh, everyone has. Appropriately enough, then. Generally considered one of his lesser works both in size and merit, the Double is nonetheless an excellent if bitter little read, dealing with many of the issues which Dostoevsky would develop to greater degree in his future works. Madness, persecution, identity, all these cheery sorts of things. Golyadkin senior is a functionary in the classic Dostoevsky mode, which is to say, petty, miserable, grasping, desperate for social recognition, weak-willed, venal, too cowardly to be very much of anything. (It would not be for more than a century that the west would begin to use this archetype in fiction). His position is usurped by the arrival of Golyadkin junior, physically identical but possessed of the selfishness and easy social manners which Golyadkin senior wishes he possessed. Or, alternatively, Golyadkin is simply going insane. Like all Dostoevsky, it's very funny in a terrible way, and also like all Dostoevsky, it's a bit of a slog. Needless to say it is also quite brilliant.

Were there swords: Not a one.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind – Ha! This one was a ton of fun. The story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born without a scent or a moral consciousness whatsoever, but blessed with a superhuman sense of smell, and the atrocities he wreaks in 18th century France. Gorgeously written, an adult fairy tale of the most fiendish sort. A great Halloween read, sent a nasty little chill up my spine. Highly recommended.

Were there swords: I mean, not really. Not in the sense of people having sword fights or whatever.

The Infernals by John Connolly – I quite like John Connolly's stuff, even if he once said bad things about my beloved Jim Thompson on a panel on noir we were both on. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU JOHN? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU? Anyway, this is a fun little book, and a good seasonal read. I didn't exactly deliberately pick Halloween appropriate reads deliberately, but it seems to have worked out that way and I'm happy it did. I'll pick up the next in the series the next time I get the chance.

Were there swords: The demons hit each other with some, but it was mostly in the background. Still, I'm going to say yes.

The Stammering Century by Gilbert Seldes – Tons of fun! A history of the19th century's fanatical religious movements, pseudoscientific dogmas, cranks, humbugs, and general lunatics, written in the early 20th century. (Sidenote: there anything more fun than reading a history book written in an earlier era? It's like getting two books for the price of one, because you get the added delight of trying to figure out how the prejudices of the writer's age reflect his opinion on the period in discussion, as well as the opportunity to question your own. Anyhow.) Seldes does a fabulous job of tying together everything from the revival movement of the Great Awakening to mid-century obsession with phrenology, showing how each eroded what was the bedrock foundation of Calvinist theology which the country was initially imbued with. Really enjoyed. As always, the Goddamn New York Review of Book is doing Goddamn great work. Goddamn. Also -- what a great fucking title.

Were there swords: No swords.

Right Now I Am Reading: A Gene Wolfe short story anthology, and ain't I lucky?

Books I read 10/20/15

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This Week I Read:

Peace by Gene Wolfe – A new favorite. Shit, do I love Gene Wolfe. Full review here.

Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes – I really don't know why this guy isn't more famous. First, you've got the pedigree – so far as I can tell the only black crime writer during the golden age of noir, friend of James Baldin, etc. – which alone would get him a peek. And on that whole end of things, he holds up nicely, offering an unflinching, indeed brutal, view on racial politics in New York during the tumultuous years of the 1960's. Himes's is a world in which everyone is pretty terrible, white or black (though the blacks have a better excuse), in which greed and barbarity are the operating motivations behind virtually everyone's actions irrespective of race. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones are Harlem's top cops, working to keep black Harlem from exploding in the face of the white power structures, and the white power structures from brutalizing its inhabitants as much as possible. There is a lot of pistol whipping in this novel, to put it another way.

But apart from the whole racial aspect of it, Himes just has a really interesting narrative style. Coffin and Gravedigger disappear for long portions of their books, and indeed Himes excels best when he is following around the criminals they are attempting to catch, in this case a two-big conman using the 'back to Africa' moment to try and dupe Harlemites out of their hard-earned money. The plot itself is more coherent than your average Chandler and less coherent than your average Ross McDonald, but it's fast and brutal and fun and even perhaps a bit more than that. Recommended.

Were there swords: No, but there's gunfights and fisticuffs of all sorts. Also, lots of sex.

Nuns and Soldiers by Iris Murdoch – So Iris Murdoch is a very well-regarded novelist, and I was excited to try her out, and she's got a pretty big oeuvre, and this isn't one of the more famous ones, and maybe I would have been better off starting somewhere else. Because this is kind of a crap book, I don't know what else to say. It's sappy and melodramatic but also really boring. There's a ton of description of how the characters are feeling, just page after page of exposition. The prose is not horrid, but it's not particularly noteworthy. Honestly I struggled to finish it. I'll give her another shot down the road, maybe this just wasn't for me.

Were there swords: This is very much not a sword-fighting book. Sorry.

Right now I am reading: Perfume, by Patrick Suskind

Books I read 10/13/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This Week I read:

Dhalgren by Samul. R. Delany – Dhalgren has elicited extremely strong reactions both for and against it; Gibson wrote the forward to my addition, and clearly holds it in immense esteem. Phillip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison famously loathed it. It is deliberately sort of impossible to describe, but a thumbnail sketch of a story is part of the convention of a book review and I'll abide by it. Very basically, it is the story of an unnamed protagonist (referred to as Kid or Kidd or the Kid, though this is not his name) who comes to visit a city called Bellona which has suffered some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe, the exact nature of which is left unclear though in addition to largely emptying the city of people and destroying most vestiges of civic life it has also upended basic laws of time and causality. It doesn't exactly have a plot beyond that. Kid wonders around a while, he meets people, he has lots of graphic sex. He spends some time moving the last remaining bourgeoisie family in the city into a new apartment building. He becomes the head of a gang of miscreants. He writes poetry. He has long discussions with another poet and an astronaut. That's about the sum of it.

It is, needless to say, not a typical genre novel, but it's also not quite as strange as it is made out to be. It's far more comprehensible than a lot of other post-modernist texts (I'm looking at you, Gravity's Rainbow). There is one main character and most of the text is, in and of itself, fairly coherent. That is to say that while it doesn't have a narrative in the normal sense, and it's sort of unclear why things are happening and even when they are supposed to take place within the larger narrative it's also fairly easy to understand what's happening at any given point.

There are two kinds of post-modernist texts; the first, far the rarer, is one which is difficult to understand because the author is so much smarter than you are, and has worked so hard to obscure his meanings. Ulysses is the ultimate example of this – if you chose to spend months with critical texts, and work through each sentence, you could understand what exactly he is trying to get at, figure out all the obscure allusions and metaphor. The other type is a book which is difficult because the author himself does not really understand what is going on, or at least he has written a book which no amount of time or effort could entirely decipher. Dhalgren is the latter – there is no key which will allow you to determine the hidden meaning of the text. Indeed I am not convinced there really is one – it is hallucinogenic, it is dreamlike.

But this isn't exactly a bad thing – the point, so far as I could gather, of Dhalgren is more to elicit certain feelings from the reader than it is to be completely understood. I read it as, in essence, a vast commentary on the anarchic 60's living of which Dhalgren was a part, a sort of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test but with more fighting. Also, unlike Tom Wolfe, Samuel Delany does not more or less openly loathe his protagonists. The descriptions of the gang that the Kid runs towards the end of the book in particular had a real feel to them. Delany supposedly had a rather checkered history and the 'nest' amongst which Kid lives seems to have the strong echo of reality.

Dhalgren is about a lot of other things too, however, and those subplots don't all come together as well. One major theme is the way in which writing happens, and the mind and life of a writer, and frankly I did not find this to be one of the stronger portions of the book. Likewise, the shocking sex scenes very quickly stop being shocking and become outright banal, as shocking sex scenes often to do, until you get to the point where you're skimming a protracted gang-bang scene out of sheer boredom.

I'm honestly not sure I could recommend it to anyone, given that it's so long, and not super easy to read, and if you were willing to put the time and effort into something there are bluntly put a lot of better books you could be reading. All that said, gun to my head I'm on Gibson's side. The book has a real pulse to it, some energy, and if you can overlook the fact that it's not doing a lot of the things a book is supposed to do, it's actually surprisingly enjoyable.

Were there swords? There were bladed weapons, does that count?

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain – This is an easy one – run out and read it. I have no idea why it took me this long to read a James M. Cain book, but I assure you it won't take nearly so much time to get to the next one. The story of an insurance agent and a soon-to-be-widow and their murderous plot is as sharp and brutal and mean and blunt as it was when it was written. Tons of fun, strongly worth a read. Get to it.

Were there swords? Nope, no swords.

Right Now I Am Reading: Peace, by Gene Wolfe.


Books I read 10/6/2015

Today is a special edition of Books I Read This Week, because it takes up three weeks instead of 1, and also I drank a lot before writing it. More than usual, I mean. Not that it matters, no one reads this, it's just something I use to keep track of the things I read and because I'm a glutton for recording things. Why are you reading this? Don't you have something better to do, like bang on a trash can or howl at the moon? Anyhow...

The Last 3 Weeks I Read:

Tun-Huang by Yashushi Inoue – yeah....uhhhh, so this was three weeks ago and I can only faintly remember it. That's not a great sign I guess. It's about a period of Chinese history which I knew nothing about before reading it, so that's a plus. I admit that apart from that it basically was not of any interest to me. Seems to be highly regarded, so there's a fair chance that I missed what was special about it, but either way.

Were there swords: Yes, actually, but it was still pretty dull.

The Captain's Daughter by Alexander Pushkin – a cute historical fairy tale, but again it didn't really do a lot for me. I understand that a lot of Pushkins appeal is that he had a critical role in the elevation of Russian as a literary language, though reading it in translation that doesn't really do anything. Also it seems to have been a very early example of the now pretty ubiquitous historical fiction genre, so there's that.

Were there swords: Yeah, there were swords, but you couldn't exactly call it riveting. Still two books with swords in a week! I'm on a roll!

The Misanthrope and Other Plays by Moliere – the titular play is pretty hysterical, and beyond that a rather cutting critique of human misbehavior. A lot of the others are just silly romps, neatly executed but not much more than that. Can someone who understands this subject better explain to me why the English plays of this period and even earlier are so much richer and more complex than this? Even the Misanthrope, which again is a lot of fun, really can't possibly be compared to say, Midsummer Night's Dream or what have you. Thoughts? Anyone? Bueller?

Were there swords: Yes, but used for comedic effect.

The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya – Man, I really liked this one. Sort of a post-apocalyptic narrative but actually a really brutally mean comment on the pointlessness of literature. The prose is extraordinarily inventive, both in terms of the language itself and of the viewpoint provided by Benedikt, the idiot manchild and protagonist/anti-hero. Having read so many endless self-serving paeans to the power of literature to ennoble the human spirit, there's something really hysterically funny about the idea of a book the essential set up of which being how reading making a person more barbaric and horrible. I just loved this book, it made me laugh constantly. Between this and the also fantastically kid Ice Trilogy, I'm starting to wonder why the Russians have all the good scifi writers?

Were there swords: No.

Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck – yeah, this was a fun one. Reck was a German arch-conservative and constant, bitter opponent of the Nazis who would end his life tragically shortly before the end of the war. With extraordinary clarity and depth of insight, he identifies the apocalyptic course which German society had embarked on, a madness which he identifies as being the ultimate product of the French revolution and of modernity generally. This is the angriest book you'll ever read, 200-odd pages of burning, lucid hatred for the moral degradation of Rcck's beloved homeland, of the apalling brutality and stupidity of the Nazis and of a society which is willing to follow them blindly off a cliff, and to lead much of the rest of Europe there with them. Excellent, worth reading, terribly sad.

Were there swords: This whole were there swords conceit is not as funny as I thought it would be.

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household – this was a ton of fun. Our unnamed protagonist, an English sports hunter of wealth, good manners, impeccable pedigree, superhuman strength, giant balls, etc, gets captured by the secret service of an unnamed country (context clues suggest Germany) who (mistakenly?) suspect him of trying to assassinate their leader (Hitler). One of those very first-rate thrillers (reminded me of Forstyhe in this) where everything makes really perfect sense, the author has seriously considered all of the events and the book would have served as a useful roadmap for escaping Germany or the London police or whatever. Better still is the very gradual reveal of the hero's motives. It whiled me through a very rainy Saturday, for which I'm thankful.

Were there swords: No, but there were rifles and ballistae and killing generally.

The Jewish War by Josephus – is it maybe kind of stupid to criticize a work of classical history as being dry? Well, I just did. Basically it's just Josephus's immensely self-serving explanation of why it was OK for him to turn traitor and join up with the Romans rather than getting himself killed like all the other Jews did. This was a pretty far way from Thucydides.

Were there swords: There were a shitload of swords. There were swords all over the damn place, seriously. If you're looking for swords, BOOM, here you go. Enjoy yourself.

Right Now I'm Reading: Nothing, but I got a Samuel Delaney book in the hopper.

Books I read 9/15/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This Week I read:

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin – Coming to Le Guin rather belatedly. She has a rare gift for portraying the complexities of alien civilization (alien in the sense of being unlike our own) without devolving into agit prop. I confess to feeling, however, it was more of an intellectual exercise in a certain sense then it was a real comment on the nature of humanity. At least with Left Hand of Darkness, the differences in basic human interaction were explained by the native peoples being dual-sex. By contrast in this one, certain core aspects of the behavior of the Libertarian planet did not ring true to me. It's hard to imagine any amount of education/indoctrination could breed out the basic selfishness and violence which is at the core of the human animal (I'm a Hobbesian – can you tell?) Very interesting all the same, I can understand why this book/her work is held in such high regard.

Were there swords: No, but there were aliens!


The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platanov: No one does despairing magical realism like the Soviet-era Russians. Foundation Pit was strange, horrifying, immensely depressing, like a lot of the Stalin-era books that were banned and have found posthumous release only in this century. Was it good? I guess it was. Did I enjoy it? Not at all. Did I understand it? To a certain extent – I admit that I didn't have the energy to sift through it to the degree that it probably deserved, but in fairness, I have at this point read many thousands of pages about the horrors of communism during this period. Was this a useful book review? No, it was not. Sorry, but there we are.

Were there swords: Absolutely no swords.

Dr. No by Ian Fleming: With the exception of Casino Royale, I never really enjoyed any of the Bond movies – dated as all hell. A toupeed Connery, half-baked puns, etc. Still, there have been innumerable bad movies made from good books, and prior to last week I had sort of vaguely assumed that original Iam Fleming books fell into this category.

Incorrect. False. Wrong altogether. Dr. No is an absolutely fetid pile of crap – it is a shit sandwich, it is falling face down into an open sewage tent. It is stupid from top to bottom, it is irredeemably horrible. I never give up on a book and I very nearly gave up on this one. Every bit of it is an inane adolescent fantasy – the writing is terrible, the pacing is execrable. There is nothing interesting about bond, there is nothing interesting about Dr. No, there is just nothing at all interesting in this anywhere at all.

Sidenote: I'm not the sort of person who criticizes works of a past generation for being racist – I assure you, you hold opinions your grandchildren will find horrifying – but Dr. No deserves particular opprobium not only for being casually racist but for being lazily racist. This is a book in which Bond, investigative genius that he is, realizes that a secretary working for the home office is in cahoots with the villain because, get this, she, like Dr. No, is also of Asian descent! Zing! A riddle wrapped in an enigma, my friends! I hated, hated, hated, hated this book.

Where there swords: No, but you'd need to hold one to my throat to get me to read another Ian Fleming book.

Anatomy of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Strange, sad, funny, the back of my book compares this to Borges and Beckett and that sounds about right. About half of the stories missed me, but about half of them – one about a priest given control over all of the world's cracks, one about a man who tries to bite his own elbow, and the societal rage this sets off – I absolutely adored. Definitely recommended.

Were There Swords: No.

The Centurions by Jean Larteguy: Held in immensely high esteem within the Special Forces community around the world, The Centurions tells the story of a group of French paratroopers who are captured after the debacle at Dien Bien Phu and survive the communist camps only to return home and discover themselves estranged from capitalist, bourgeois France. I've actually been looking for this one for years, as being a classic text on the mind state of today's all-volunteer army, and it did not disappoint. Although it did depress—Larteguy's portrait of a society utterly consumed by hedonistic excess and bereft of a moral code; and of the men sworn to defend that society, who defend but are secretly loathed by it; both hit home in uncomfortable ways. I told Myke Cole he should read it, and he told me he was reading the Builders already, and I said this was better than the Builders, and he told me that was the sort of thing I shouldn't write in public, and then I went ahead and ignored him. Anyway – this was really excellent, deserving of the regard it is held in by a small portion of the population, definitely worth trying to find.

Were there swords: No, but there was some well-written, unheroic, realistic-seeming action, as would be appropriate for a book of this sort.

Acme Novelty Library #19 by Chris Ware: My first encounter with the man, and I can see why he's so highly regarded. A very good pulp sci fi story and a strong digression into the personal history of the man who wrote it, both making use of the format in ways which I was unfamiliar with and enjoyed.

Were there swords: No.

Terror Assaulter (O.M.W.O.T.) by Benjamin Marra: A one note joke which quickly falls sour. The art is nothing really to speak of, and the hyper-stylized, childlike masculinity warrants a chuckle but not more than that. Not good.

Were there swords: Actually, There's one right there on the cover! Much good may it do you, you fucking dick. Yeah, I'm talking to you -- who the hell reads this shit anyway? Bring it on! You don't scare me!

Right Now I Am Reading: The Captain's Daughter by Alexander Pushkin.

Books I read 9/8/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This Week I read:

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by Frederick Starr: Pretty much as the subtitle says – an intellectual history of Central Asia during that period when it was dominating the philosophical, mathematical, medical and scientific firmaemnt.. Always interesting to read about a part of the world of which I know only a little, of which Central Asia is at the top of the list. Really made me want to take off on my do-before-I-die trip through the 'stans. Somewhat dry, but that's to be expected given the nature of the work. It also gave a lot of pushback to the Mongols-as-civilization-builders meme which has gotten a lot of play in academic circles in recent years, though to be blunt I have absolutely no capacity to mediate in this particular dispute. Interesting if you have the time.

Were there swords: There were not a lot of swords, no.

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima: Best known as this point in the West for the least successful coup attempt in the history of mankind (worth a Google, I promise), Mishima is still generally considered one of the great 20th century Japanese writers, and one can see why. This book is beautifully written, even in translation the prose sparkles. I admit that the story itself, which is sort of a lost-love story and sort of about Mishima's obsession with suicide/brevity/emotional purity/the transient nature of perfection, did not resonate in any particularly strong way with me. It reminded me a lot of the German romantics, so if Rilke etc. is your bag this might do it for you. Maybe if I'd read it 15 years ago the passion in the novel would have affected me more strongly, as it was I felt a little bit like, ugh, grow the fuck up kids. Anyway, just me.

Were there swords: No.


Doctor Frigo by Eric Ambler: Fucking Eric Ambler, man, fucking Eric Ambler. Best spy novelist ever, though the protagonists are never spies, just regular folk in over their heads. Very cleverly written, possessing a moral weight which more conventional novels in this genre can only dream of, never allwoing geopolitical concerns to outweigh the human element. Not his best (personally I would go with Judgment for Deltchev though there are lots of contenders) it's still pretty stellar, definitely worth a look.

Were there swords: Not really, but there's action of various sorts.

Right Now I Am Reading: As soon as I post this, I'm going to buy another beer and read Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, which should be fun. Update: Bought beer early. 



Do I Write Dark Fiction?

I recommended a book to Mark Lawrence on twitter the other day, (Red Shift, in case you were wondering) commenting (in a positive sense) that it was quite bleak. A Facebook follower, alluding to the general darkness of Mark and my work, that if we think something as grim, it must truly be a nasty piece of business. I admit I was sort of taken aback – when I think of really bleak books, I'm thinking of Jim Thompson, or maybe the Gulag Archipelago, meditations on the nature of sin, which is to say the nature of man, not the sort of adventure novels for which I'm known. On the other hand, pretty much every review of my stuff that I've ever read, positive or negative, has commented on it being very dark, not-your-parents-sort-of-fantasy, that kind of thing.

So I got to thinking – just what kind of books do I write?

The Low Town stuff is, on the surface at least, quite grim. For those of you who haven't read it (and really, if you haven't, please do, the rent man has been banging loudly at my door these last days) the protagonist is a (nearly) amoral sociopath who makes his living selling drugs, conning the stupid, brutalizing the weak. He curses, he snarls, he snorts the secondary world equivalent of cocaine. He kills a lot of people with bladed weapons. What morals he holds are hidden so deep that even he seems barely aware of them. His past history, gradually revealed over the course of the trilogy, is filled with acts of betrayal, blasphemy and depredation. Compared to classic fantasy, with its paladins, white horses, shining swords and swooning maidens, it certainly has more of an edge to it. So far as I can tell, there's no sex to be found in Middle Earth, let alone people paying for it, and although the exact chemical composition of 'pipe weed' remains unclear, it presumably isn't what we would all hope it to be.

All that said, and for my money, Low Town isn't really dark, despite bad things happening to all of the characters pretty much all the time. The narrative is constructed in such a fashion that you can always be rooting for the Warden, even if it's just because his opponents are so much worse. And while he does terrible things, he's doing them for sympathetic reasons, and you sort of get the sense that he regrets it in some distant way. The Warden is, in short, something of a genre cliché, if, I hope, a well written one. This is not the Sheriff in The Killer Inside me – you are meant to root for the Warden, to hold out hope for his redemption.

But even if you didn't – if you found him to be irredeemable, or simply too unpleasant to want to spend an entire novel with (as some readers did) the book is all the same so clearly in the classic genre mode, that it seems sort of impossible to take it seriously. From the frequent scenes of physical violence, which are described in intimate detail, to the highly stylized dialogue, which is sharper then any normal conversation, it is clear that the narrative is taking place in a world which, beyond its obvious fictional characteristics, is not the same as our own. Too much happens too quickly, reality is made subject to the deadheads of a fast-moving plot. In short, even a largely unobservant reader will implicitly understand that they are consuming a story which has only a very loose connection to thei own lives. It is difficult for me to imagine there are many readers working their way through Low Town and grappling, with the moral struggles facing the Warden. The day to day concerns of modern existence – alienation, over-consumption, good old fashioned ennui – have little reflection in the Warden's own troubles. His misfortunes are entertaining, a happy distraction from our own, more complicated, less solvable, problems.

On another, deeper level, the fact that Low Town coheres to a traditional structure, however grim that might be, is in itself a source of comfort to the reader. Stories are attempts to force a narrative pattern on a world which steadfastly resists it. It is far easier to accept that we are the victim of tragedy, one of our own making or one decreed upon us by grim fate, than it is to admit that life essentially consists of random or seemingly random events, that boulders fall on us from the sky, that bullets catch heroes and cronies alike, that the only purpose or meaning is that which we create for ourselves, dependent and not external to us.

A book like Red Shift, by contrast, which is of genre but not within it, works deliberately to confuse and confound the reader. The perspective changes abruptly and with little warning, terrible violence is introduced without preamble or postscript, the dialogue is confusing and somewhat obtuse, and all of these work to unmoor the reader from their usual perspective. In its refusal to give clear answers, in its confusing and opaque structure, Red Shift mimics the nature of human existence in a more accurate and thus more discomfiting way then more conventional genre fiction.

In short, the the things I write are satisfying, even if they aren't happy. That's my feeling – what's yours?

Books I Read 4/28/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This Week I Read:

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor: Patrick Leigh Fermor, when he was eighteen, decided to walk from London to Constantinope, and this is the first third of that trip. I suppose this isn't quite Marco Polo but amongst travel writers in the 20th century it reigns pretty much untouched.. To have been able to explore this last fragment of pre-modern Europe – Germany before it was turned to ash, Central Europe before fifty years of a Soviet yoke! – is something that no serious traveler cannot look upon without undisguised jealousy. And there is a great deal here that any backpacker, even those of us in this dull and benighted and progress-throttled modern age, can appreciate. The sudden fortuitous kindness of strangers, the stunning, childlike jubilation one feels when one is utterly alone and untraceable in some strange place.

On to the downside. Fermor is tremendously erudite, which can be marvelously fun when you are dealing with intersecting interests (the 30 year war, the early migrations of peoples in Europe) bot at other times can grow quite ponderous, as for instance the phenomenally rococo descriptions of steeples and church naves. It has to be admitted even by a fundamentally positive reviewer that Fermor's linguistic excesses grow wearisome. Three times in the book Fermor has occasion to use the term Caracol, a cavalry maneuver which utilized the pistol and which saw brief use during the Wars of Religion but swiftly fell out of favor as reducing the shock value of the charge itself and generally being less valuable than just riding up and sabering people. It has a lovely sound to it but is unknown except amongst specialists and probably not the thing a good editor should let slip past. In any event, in none of the instances does Fermor appear to use it properly, but rather as a simple euphemism for ride, which is really just bad writing all around. I only harp on this because it was one of the innumerable obscured words in the book that by coincidence I happened to be familiar with, and because I can't help but think that many of these linguistic bric-a-brac, if investigated might reveal a similarly dubious provance.

Put another way – were I more clever, Fermor might appear less so.

Happily, I am not that clever, and anyway when Fermor returns to his narrative, winking (asexual?) trysts with German maidens beneath the claws of Nazi SS leches, making a living as a professional portrait artist in Vienna, being invited into the castles of the fading Dual-Monarchy nobility, it is impossible not to enjoy yourself. I would certainly have picked up the next two in the trilogy if I wasn't about to follow Fermor's example (if, it goes without saying, in a less admirable and courageous fashion) and going traveling for a while, and thus can only take giant books which will take me a long time to finish. It might also be the reason why next Tuesday you don't get a blog entry. Heartbreaking, I know.

Were there swords: No, there were no swords.

Books I Read 4/21/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This Week I Read:

Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge: So after last week's debacle, after I laid that goose egg, after the rare route in the lifelong battle against ignorance, I had hoped to return this week at double-speed. Alas. I only read the one book, and even then only barely. Part of this is because I'm under the gun with Those Below, and I'm moving out of my apartment, and I'm going traveling at the end of the month, and also for other reasons that don't need to be entered in on. But mostly because Unforgiving Years is not a page turner, not something to skim while defecating or half-read in a bar while eying a pretty girl. Simultaneously complex in language, structure, and thought, Unforgiving Years chronicles the terrible brutality of the years leading up to an immediately after WWII. It is loosely the story of Daria, a Soviet revolutionary struggling against the onslaught of Fascism while trying to survive Stalin's savage series of purges, although really this is to simplify the matter immensely.

It is a fantastic book. It is a minor masterpiece. It is very, very hard to read. The complexity of Serge's language and thought, the curious shifts in perspective—he has a habit of slipping seamlessly from one character to another so that you barely notice he has done so—are not easily comprehended, not even to a relatively capable reader. Moreover, the subject matter itself, which, though despairing, is not nihilistic, is similarly something of a challenge. The third portion of the novel in particular, which chronicles Daria's mission in war-ravaged Germany, is ferocious and disturbing, the imagery horrifying, the prose chaotic. Serge's perspective as true witness to war—he fought for the Red Army during the Russian revolution—offers an authentically tragic perspective on what is one of the darkest periods of human history, when the full potential of the industrial age has been turned towards the eradication of all that is decent and noble and innocent in humankind.

It took me a while, but it was worth it. And it got me thinking some about difficult literature, and of the things that books ask of us. Books can serve different purposes—to educate, to entertain, to enlighten, although the last I think it ultimately the most important. But revelation is not something which can be easily granted—it requires struggle, it requires sacrifice. The best books, in my opinion, are usually not the easy ones, not the downhill sprints (though they can be fun also). They're the rough ones, the ones that force us to stretch ourselves, the ones that stare back at us from our bedside tables contemptuously, challenging our attention. Unforgiving Years is one of these books, though a reader who makes the attempt will find not only a profound meditation on the nature of man, and on the foolish, formless optimism which is a requirement to avoid the weight of nihilism, but also a work of immense lyrical and aesthetic excellence. Highly recommended.

Were There Sword Fights: No, but there was some action. Although I mean, obviously, from the above you shouldn't expect a whiz-banger. Anyway.

Right Now I Am Reading: A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and just loving it.