A roundup of things consumed by our contributors.
With an eye towards increasing my tally of nonfiction consumed in 2011, I read Peter Hessler’s River Town. (Much like Jason last week, I must tip my hat in the direction of the Bookavore-originating recommendation.) I found it to be a fascinating account of a small city in China, wedding a candid account of his time there as a teacher with passages that give a deeper history of the region and nation around him. A few days after reading it, I opened the latest issue of The New Yorker to find Hessler reporting from Egypt. Serendipity! Or something like it.
Over the weekend, I finished reading Best Music Writing 2011. I’m not unbiased here — series editor Daphne Carr is a friend — but I found much of the work in here solid and enlightening, as I tend to do while reading the series. It also prompted me to look into a number of artists profiled, including jazz pianist Fred Hersch.
This week, I also read a pair of collections from Scott McClanahan. Stories II was quite good, encompassing offbeat humor, low-key tragedies, and moments of revelation; Stories V! struck me as more of the same, but even more refined, its emotional shifts more wrenching and, sometimes, more effective. And its cover made the experience of reading it on the subway feel just a bit salacious. I found both Justin Taylor’s thoughts on McClanahan’s fiction and Kyle Minor’s interview with McClanahan to be good reading, and I’m curious to read the novel he has coming out on Tyrant in 2012.
Also on the agenda this week: Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Waugh’s Scoop has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most racist novels I’ve read. This one has its share of cringeworthy moments, though I can at least write some of them off to Waugh’s characters being bigoted rather than Waugh’s own prejudices. (Not all of them, however: there are some deeply cringeworthy moments even here.) But overall, I was impressed: it moves from wry comedy to something much bleaker without ever losing its sense of wit, and its ending is haunting without losing a sense of grim comedy.
Eileen Myles’s Inferno: A Poet’s Novel does some very interesting structural things while also channeling abundant anxieties — personal, romantic, economic — over the course of its narrative. A friend of mine’s been reading it at the same time, and I’m looking forward to sitting down and discussing it in the next week or two. Myles also has a blurb on the cover of Trinie Dalton’s Baby Geisha, which I read in anticipation of a review to appear here before long.
I’d been meaning to read Tom McCarthy’s Remainder for ages, and finally got around to it after reading his more recent C earlier in the year. I’m still working through my feelings on the ending, and — in some ways — I wish I’d read it earlier, as it shares some qualities with Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. (And, for that matter, some of Steven Millhauser’s fiction.) It’s both witty and terrifyingly bleak in spots — there’s one bit in particular, involving cats on rooftops, that inspired a few shudders while reading.
I closed out the week by reading Javier Marias’s Written Lives. It consists of a series of short biographical sketches of writers, including Laurence Sterne, Malcolm Lowry, and Arthur Conan Doyle. They’re uniformly brief but evocative; tonally, it’s similar to Marias’s cohort Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, albeit nonfiction and generally focused on writers whose politics don’t flirt with fascism. And given that both this book and Blake Butler’s Nothing reference her work, I’m reminded that I’ll need to pick up Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood in the weeks to come.
And reading some of the year in review pieces from my colleagues at Dusted, I came across Otis Hart’s rave about the King Creosote and Jon Hopkins album that came out earlier this year on Domino. I picked it up a few days ago, and have been obsessing over it ever since: think lush, heartbreaking pop. I suspect that if I’d picked it up earlier in the year, it would have ended up with a place on my top ten list for the year as well…
Toby sent me this short piece written by Luc Sante on the French crime writer J-P Manchette, and it got me to thinking that I really do seem to read one thing written by Sante a week that I actually like, and that maybe I should start a Tumblr called Fuck Yeah Luc Sante. (Also, I should consider checking out J-P Manchette.)
The Sante effect also recently led me to pick up Lynd Ward’s Six Novels in Woodcuts as a Hanukkah gift to myself after I’d read a review on the collection in Harper’s earlier in the year. The two books are beautifully presented (Library of America put it out, so duh…), and the wordless stories contained within those books are all absolutely stunning. It took me a few moments to adjust to reading a wordless book, but after I did, I quickly realized Lynd Ward was one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in 2011, and that Luc Sante is the official spirit animal of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
I’m on the beach for the next few days, so I’ve brought what I’m hoping will be enough books. That probably means that next week’s Indexing from me will be pretty full. I will probably also watch It’s a Wonderful Life tonight, since the last time I saw it I didn’t realize Dorothy Parker and Dalton Trumbo were uncredited writers for the film. I’m going to dork out and try to spot any tiny bit of influence I can catch from either of them.
While any new issue of Lapham’s Quarterly brings da ruckus, the Winter 2012 edition cataloguing the subject of “Family” through written language is a scorcher even by the publication’s fist-pumpingly high standard. Worth the admission price alone is a “Voices in Time” selection excerpting a page from Charles Darwin’s notebooks in which lists bullet points on the prospects of marriage, positive (“constant companion… better than a dog, anyhow) and against (Loss of time—cannot read in the evenings—fatness and idleness—anxiety and responsibility—less money for books, etc.). I was also pleased to get acquainted with J.R. Ackerley (1896-1967) and a selection from his memoir My Father and Myself, in which he writes:
I’ve got memoir on the brain, as this week I relished Mi Ultimo Suspiro [My Last Sigh], the fine autobiography of Luis Bunuel. Readers looking for surrealist tutorials, film studio gossip, and that elusive gander called “progress” can look elsewhere. This is Bunuel on his veritable death bed telling crazy stories about the weather in his hometown and that wild dream he had the other night. For as he concedes in the middle of a gem about his favorite Marxists, “I know I’m digressing; but, as with all Spanish picaresques, digression seems to be my natural way of telling a story.” The results are lush, vivid landscapes of Spain, Mexico, France, with impressionistic lines that are at once richly revealing and perceptive while always leaving our tastebuds craving one more turn of the page.
Speaking of Bunuel: it’s that time of year when movies stop being about what blowhard executives think will be a blockbuster and start being about what those blowhards think will win them awards and the begrudging respect of peers. Still on my dance card but not yet seen: Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (based on the book of near same name by John Carr), McQueen’s Shame, Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (hey that was a book too), and Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (hell yeah that was also a book).