A roundup of things consumed by our contributors.
Ever since I read a glowing review of his latest work, I’ve been curious to read something from the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Kausgaard. On a recent flight to Seattle, I read Knausgaard’s A Time For Everything. It’s the kind of novel where—I would argue—a basic summary of the plot doesn’t really do the book justice; nor would it get at how utterly readable it is. Angels play a significant role, as do metaphysical theories, isolation, and fjords—there are moments of perfect tenderness and moments of brutal violence; evocations of madness and passages nearly academic in their density. It’s unlike almost anything I’ve read before. I’m now curious to read his other works—though given that his present opus has the potentially dodgy title My Struggle, I’m…a bit wary.
Also read and recommended: Shelley Jackson’s Half Life, which I’d been meaning to read for a while. And I’ve been listening somewhat obsessively to both the Smith Street Band’s latest, Sunshine and Technology, which sates my need for folky punk rock pretty magnificently; and Shores’s Leavening, which proves decisively that slowcore is alive and well. Bedhead fans, take note.
Usually there’s one piece in The New Yorker that looks like candy wrapped just for me, but this week there were two: a profile of a sassy octogenarian venerated for her legacy as a personal shopper at Bergdorfs, then a review of “Poems 1962-2012,” the collected works of seventy-nine-year-old Louise Glück. Basically, I love old ladies. What’s not to love about Glück? She’s obsessive, shrewd, and mean, and she writes devastating lines more often than not. (Not that it matters, but she was also a total babe.) Now I feel conscripted to own the collection.
This Bergdorfs woman also makes me swoon. Betty Halbreich insults her customers (“Buy it…it’s not as terrible as what you came in with,” she sighs to one lady), wears leopard brooches “for pizzazz,” and has noble guidelines for loyalty: “I don’t take the second wife if I’ve dressed the first one, and I don’t take the mistress.” The profile is written in that familiar New Yorker rhythm, paragraphs of history and bon mots in consistent amounts. Curmudgeons: I love them. I ate both pieces up with my breakfast.
And because I’m the most distracted reader here, I’m still making my way through Rebecca. On more than one occasion, my laughter and eye-widening has prompted a fellow commuter to check the cover of my book, perhaps for a recommendation, then look quizzically away.
Big, invigorating week of reading for me. After finishing write-ups of Naipaul’s The Suffrage of Elvira and Saramago’s Seeing for election coverage, I got to read something totally different in Eva Marie Staal’s Try the Morgue, the pseudonym-penned memoir of a Dutch woman who ran guns for Chinese mobsters until the suburbs came calling. The prose is so straightforward and so unlike 98% of what goes on in the “literary” fiction we cover here that I was taken aback, even in the book’s later sections that seem to run on fumes. We should have a full review soon, but this is a true blue espionage story that taught me some new tricks.
I also burned through Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a book I’ve meant to read since its pub date. Its subject—the life and death of Didion’s daughter Quintana Roo—is obviously heavy, and frankly there were times where I lost interest in hearing about the Didion-Dunne clan’s salad days in Brentwood, but when she’s in her element—depicting the landscape, the weather, the cruelty and wit of mother nature, and shedding insight on the tightrope relations between mothers and daughters—Didion remains one of my Hall of Fame all-timers.
I also picked up the NYRB reissue of John Collier’s 1951 supernatural short story collection Fancies and Goodnights on a total whim uptown, out of some relief and gratitude to have the option of being in Manhattan with relative ease. My intrigued browsing continues, as the eccentricity of Collier’s characters—so often marked by passions which border on neuroses—are weirdos with dignity and pride, cut from the same cloth of Chabon and Lethem’s best inventions, and all the sci-fi and macabre genre grime that comes with them.
Is it some sort of coincidence that the two best music profiles I’ve read this year are either about D’Angelo, or talk about him quite a bit? A few months after Amy Wallace’s stunning GQ piece on the singer that some thought was the “next Marvin Gaye,” Burkhard Bilger has penned a piece on Questlove for The New Yorker, and D’Angelo pops up quite a bit throughout it. Not to take one thing away from Questlove, who is probably the hardest working man in showbiz, but what D’Angelo brings to a piece can’t be ignored.
The “fall, comeback, rise, fall” story mix-up of Detroit is really fascinating to me, even though I’ve never been there. I’ve only met like two people in my life from there. But still, I’m just a sucker for American decay. So I’m really kicking myself for missing the Detropia documentary made by the same filmmakers who created the Jesus Camp doc. Instead I settled for this Elvis Mitchell podcast with them. They made a very salient point about the influence of the Eminem/Clint Eastwood commercials that marketed Detroit as “being back” when it’s so far from the truth, yet many media outlets wrote stories to confirm the marketing narrative, rather than probing into it.
I’m on a library list for the new Mark Binelli book (Detroit City is the Place To Be) and I snatched up the Charles LeDuff galley Detroit: An American Autopsy which drops in February. I’ve read just a bit of the former, and it’s written in the form of small, personal anecdotes rather than as an analytical political science essay. Looks good to get at the personal rather just the systemic.
The new issue of the (large form) Filter has a big piece on the Descendents. Buy this mag if you see it; it smells good.
The new Zachary German documentary is pretty fascinating for anyone interested in that scene of Muumuu House/literalist writers. I reviewed it here.
I found an old galley of NW and will hoard it because I’m too cheap to buy it.
The issue of The Normal School is very good, and I’ll be reviewing for Vol 1 soon.
And I’ll just put this at the end: I listened to more of the new Further Seems Forever album this week than I care to admit (which has only been once, maybe twice but that seems like enough).
Haven’t indexed in a while and now that we can all breathe deep after the election, we can talk about the important things in life: books. I finally finished In Search of Lost Time and despite my efforts and desires not to convert to the Proustomania, I’ve succumbed to idolatry. I like to think that despite my new obsession with Proust I can still analyze cogently and critically of his work, but right now, in this glow of our honeymoon I can only say – I miss him.
In consolation, I’ve moved on to Tolstoy. Graham Greene famously explained that “Proust was the greatest novelist of the twentieth century, just as Tolstoy was in the nineteenth,” and that provided a bit of the impetus, but more I’ve been on a fix to read just a lot of big old fat books. I finished Anna Karenina and now find myself entrenched in War and Peace. I don’t see this mentioned that often in conversation about AK, but that is a somewhat obvious misnomer. In no classical way is she the protagonist, and I find it curious both that Tolstoy chose the name and how it speaks to the way we’ve internalized the story. Most people, even those who read and know the book well with discuss the book as focused on Anna, and of course, focused on adultery. But even in the most simple retelling of the story, Anna’s play a central but backseat role to Levin. The story is much more about investigating the myriad paths of happiness than about adultery. That we interpret it more in the salacious manner seems to speak to something fundamental about we tend to want from our literature.
After the first 300 pages of War and Peace I found myself more enamored than after Anna Karenina. I think we underestimate the excitement with which war in literature affects us as reader. We don’t really have that much war literature, and when we do we look it as an anti-war book. The morality of all this is dicey, but I miss books that use war as a backdrop, allowing a discussion of its merits and morality along with some of the, yes, joys and excitements of war. This sounds frightening to say, but seeing how fiction knows no bound, I think this is worthy of exploration. To be continued on that front.