Here’s what’s on my night table right now.
The man was a surgeon with a simile. Much of his prose outclassed Mann, Zweig, and Kafka. He gets called a pure stylist. It’s true. The two novellas in this collection read as formal experimentation. Interesting, but lacking the traditional pleasures of plot and character (unlike his first novel, The Confusions of Young Törless, where he applies his prose chops to a gripping narrative). Image: author photo
File under odd and superb. This “novel in verse” uses one of Herakles’s minor labors as the inspiration for a contemporary and precisely told tale of unrequited love. The connection between the myth and the story is tenuous. But because there is a large gap to bridge between myth and story, the narrative presents a pure expression of Anne Carson’s imagination — and what a bridge that is. We see how she filters myth; at times it seems we see this process in real time. She could have taught Homer a thing or two. Read, July 2019. Image: Krakatoa
Sebald’s first novel. I’m impressed with how his style (European wandering, personal engagement with history, photographs, the slide from fact to fiction) emerged fully formed. The rendering of Casanova’s escape from prison in Venice resonated particularly for me. Casanova spends years gazing up at the solid rafters of his cell — until an earthquake many miles away shows these rafters can be shaken. Read, July 2019. Image: Casanova’s cell
Moby Dick for trees. But Moby Dick never made me jump out of my seat with the urge to hug a whale. The Overstory sent me straight to the forest: I lucked out in finishing it in San Francisco, where my sister and brother-in-law were kind enough to indulge my need to see/smell/hug a redwood. I’m loath to imagine the reader who finishes The Overstory with the same view of the world. Read, July 2019. Image: redwood loggers
The political is rendered personal in the slow vise of a prison. The vise belongs to Stalin. The man ground to powder: he too belongs to Stalin. We know the prisoner intimately, as man, as dust. We know, too, with bracing specificity, just how the vise is operated. A flawless 20th Century novel. Read, July 2019. Image: author photo
Sugar: a prostitute, a master in the evaluation of men. Henry Rackham: a man she loathes, and loves, and loathes again. Her reevaluation is fully earned within the world of this novel (a mucky but generously appointed place). In Sugar’s accumulation of agency, through the novel’s late turns, the narrative overcomes its middle doldrums. Read, June 2019. Image: Van Gogh
There’s a trove of Polaroid pictures at the end of this book. For no better reason than to withhold a treat for myself, I chose not to flip back there to examine the Polaroids whenever they cropped up in the narrative. I feel no wiser to have taken this approach. Approaches to this novel are many; the narrative is laden with external media sources, and one could make the case that a thorough reader should consume/digest these sources concurrently with the characters. Or after them. Or before them… There is an illicit pleasure in scrutinizing the bookshelf of someone you don’t know very well while they’re in the other room. Read, June 2019. Image: Geronimo
I haven’t cut my hair in a while. L’s suggestion that it makes me look like a character from Dumas was among my reasons for reading this book. The count’s fall from grace I found more engrossing than the revenge he wreaks. Maybe a question of pacing. Read, May 2019. Image: author photo.
Me in the bookstore: Have I read this before? It’s just the kind of book I would have read on my “New South” kick of ’06-07. Let’s look at a page or two… Turns out I hadn’t read it. And I’m grateful I didn’t leave it on the shelf. I should have read it earlier. I would gladly read it again. It is a story crowding with life. Read, April 2019. Image: author photo.
Research/detail/scope/obsession. This is what I have come to expect from Vollmann, and no less impressive for being expected… But the chapters that thrilled me most were the cabalistic ones: Hitler as a Wagner fanboy-mystic; Stalin as the master of unsolvable riddles; a vast fungal network underlying stone edifices, reminding me that big -isms (Fascism, Communism) often rest on the flimsiest human fictions. Read, April 2019. Image: Käthe Kollwitz, “Die Überlebenden”
Just a few months ago I resolved to stop writing any story that does not contain amongst its character a compelling villain. So, I’m on the lookout in my reading for villains, and this story has a great one: a pretender to the Russian Tsardom — a cossack warlord whose followers have grown wild beyond his control. The pretender not once but several times puts our hero, a young officer, on the gallows, only to remove him. In this story, hero and villain understand — and in a way respect — each other. There is immaculate balance to this tale. Read, March 2019. Image: author painting
The first novella in this set of two is so good it makes the second feel wanting (and I’ll ignore it here). As for the first… anyone who’s ever wondered about the the possibilities of body horror in literature (as I have) will be thoroughly stimulated. There’s a frame story that builds/sustains tension masterfully. There are unanswered questions; there is space for the reader’s thought to bloom. This is the first piece of fiction from Will Self I have read, but not the last. Read, March 2019. Image: from Cronenberg’s “EXistenZ”
I find it hard to go more than a year without picking up some offering from Simenon’s abundance of excellent novels. This one rates highly against the others I’ve read. The main character is named Kees Popinga. That alone is a mark of distinction. Read, March 2019. Image: detail from book cover
After seeing the film while in Prague, I had to check out the novel upon which it’s based. The protagonist is a Czech cremator being courted by the Nazis for his services. He’s unhinged, pathetic, and sometimes hilarious. In the film, he’s somewhat easier to laugh at, but the novel retains a sense of humor I found uncomfortably appealing. Picture me in airports reading this book and laughing out loud. Read, February 2019. Image: from the film adaptation
Truth. Fiction. Truth/fiction. What is fiction? What is truth? Every page prompts a consideration of these big questions. But… if i’m honest I got the most pleasure out of Herodotus’s colorful explications of the customs of ‘barbarian’ lands. They’re rich, editorial, and never fail to inject a human aspect to a narrative (about war) that can sometimes lose sight of the people involved. In my translation (Aubrey de Selincourt’s), Herodotus will often end one of his long digressions with something like “So much for the Libyans” or “More could be said about this tribe, but now I must move on.” These transitions —abrupt but honest — always made me smile. Read, February 2019. Image: bust of the author