A roundup of things consumed by our contributors.
We’ve got two weeks of reading here. This….might take a while. Though it’s a strange cosmic joke that I made my way through the 850-page novel on the list to follow faster than nearly everything else on it.
That 850-page novel was Stephen King’s rightly acclaimed 11/22/63. It’s a structurally ambitious work, its tonal shifts and accumulating plotlines could just as easily be translated into three or four short novels welded together. There are early invocations of Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson, both of which are King essentially announcing the territory he’s working in here. There’s also just a bit of the weird mystery of Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County in here, I’d say — particularly the early sections, in which the novel’s protagonist finds himself in a bleak industrial town plagued by certain sinister discontinuities.
After that, I moved on to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row; I shall tip my hat in the direction of Miss Liberty for the recommendation. Shamefully, I haven’t read nearly as much Steinbeck as I should (hoping to tackle East of Eden next); this was probably my first novel of his that didn’t feel as though social injustice was at the center of it. Though certainly poverty is — but the focus here is more on the interaction of certain characters. It’s hard describing it, though, as the appeal of this novel (for me, at least) came in the small details: the evocations of small moments of joy, the quiet descriptions of residences and workplaces and daily routines.
I hadn’t read anything by Martin Amis in a while, and took the week after Christmas to delve into his novel The Pregnant Widow. Amis seems here to be working through some of his dodgier recent-period politics; at the very least, he seems more concerned with asking questions about faith, fanaticism, and sexuality than in providing any firm answers. That said, I’m unsure whether the novel’s consideration of Islam entirely meshes with the sexual comedy that runs through much of the book. Though…much of what makes the novel stick turns on an interesting structural choice that Amis makes in the last quarter of the novel that, ultimately, makes this more than simply a light comedy of young, attractive people fumbling towards one another. (There are also some interesting parallels to Geoff Dyer’s Paris Trance, especially given both authors citation of D.H. Lawrence. These two books would make for an interesting book group double bill, I’d say.)
Franklin Park Reading Series’s Penina Roth recommended Helen Phillips’s And Yet They Were Happy; it’s a surreal, disjointed account of a couple’s ups and downs, with cameos from everyone from Bob Dylan to Noah (as in, the guy with the ark). It reads something like a circa-now take on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth; I’d also recommend it to fans of Amelia Gray’s AM/PM. I wasn’t as taken by Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife as I expected to be. Parts of it — notably, the narrator’s relationship with “the deathless man” — have a haunted quality where rationality and folklore collide. But the narrator, the novel’s nominal protagonist, never quite achieved an equal dramatic weight to her historical predecessors. I was impressed enough to be curious about what Obreht does next, but I wasn’t as floored by this novel as I had expected to be.
I figured I’d delve into the New Directions back catalog a bit, especially as one of these books was referenced numerous times by authors whose work I admire. That novel as Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (and the works in which it was referenced were Blake Butler’s Nothing and Javier Marias’s Written Lives). It’s a sharp, messy novel of damaged characters falling in and out of love and obsession in the years between world wars. I also read the fancy new edition of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, which encases a deceptively simple story in multiple authorial layers, examining the relationships between men and women, writers and characters, and urban and rural society.
Two noteworthy autobiographical works from Oregonian writers also impressed me in the past two weeks of reading. Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water is a wrenching work, the sort of thing that covers a number of harrowing experiences and also offers up moments of unadulterated bliss. There’s a very conversational tone here; then, Yuknavitch mentions in passing that she has a PhD. It’s the sort of novel that seems casually constructed and is yet neatly balanced; it’s also left me very curious to read more of her fiction. (Between Yuknavitch and Norman Lock, whose Pieces for Small Orchestra I’m reading now, it’s been a good week for FC2 alumni.) And I’ll be writing up Martha Grover’s One More for the People, a collection of her zine Somnabulist, in the next week or two, but it’s also a fantastic portrayal of a life through small details and unexpected histories.
I can’t really write neutrally about GB Tran’s Vietnamerica; its author is a friend. But I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention it here, even with that caveat — it’s a smart, compelling read, and its marriage of style and story works on a number of levels. There are a number of styles referenced, from densely realist to clair ligne-influenced (the latter to evoke life in Vietnam under French governance, a nice touch). And it’s interestingly structured, from the multiple timelines and perspectives running through the book as a whole to the panel and page layouts. And I’m hoping that this year finds me reading more graphic novels than in years past; I’m starting to make my way through Craig Thompson’s Habibi, and am eying the omnibus edition of Eddie Campbell’s Alec books.
I sat on the beach and read for almost two straight weeks. I’ve never had an actual vacation for such a long amount of time, and I worried that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. So I read. I read a whole lot.
I read Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and enjoyed it. It wasn’t the life changing experience that some people made it out to be. Was it a fantastic debut novel? Yes, absolutely. It’s just really hard to enjoy a book that received such a tidal wave of hype without trying to ask if you were supposed to get more out of it. That’s no slight on Ms.Obreht or her skill (which she has plenty of), it’s simply an observation.
I read 3 books by P.G. Wodehouse (Money for Nothing, The Adventures of Sally, and Summer Lightning/Fish Preferred) as part of an experiment on how much P.G. Wodehouse I can read in an entire year, considering he’s literally got hundreds of selections to pick from. I passed on the Jeeves stuff (some of which I’ve already read), and decided to read a few of the books that fall under the “other” category — most of which I picked up at The Strand. Now that I’m immersing myself in his work, I see his influence on Zadie Smith to the Marx Brothers, and even maybe the Harry Potter series.
Among other things, I finished Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy. I’m assuming I’ll have plenty of words on that soon enough. The other day I read Ken Dryden’s piece on Grantland. I can’t really suggest reading it enough, and if you have any interest in hockey or good sportswriting. Dryden’s not only one of the greatest goalies to ever play the game, but he can also write pretty damned well.
I saw Melancholia on Tuesday. Holy moley. The woman next to my viewing partner fell asleep, and the man behind me kept laughing at moments where anyone showed any empathy for anyone else. It was great. I cried at the end because I’m a sucker for romanticism. And beautiful clothes. I was straight Daisy Buchanan-ing it. They were such beautiful shirts! I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before! Probably a callous reaction, in retrospect.
I’m reading Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen right now. She has a way of presenting people in their contradictions without poking you too hard in the ribs about it. I mean, she pokes you a little, but not enough to bother you. There’s also a lot of plot to go along with the astute assessments of hypocritical and ludicrous alterna-cultures, so it makes for great subway reading. And imagine my surprise when I sat down to the first Los Angeles Review of Books podcast (topic: Sheila Heti and Misha Glouberman’s The Chairs Are Where People Go) and Tom Lutz immediately mentions Zazen in minute 1 or 2 as a dystopic comparison to Glouberman’s optimism. It’s always nice for things in your reading-listening life to sync up like that.
Speaking of syncing up, when’s Portlandia coming back again? Is it soon? I see those ads everywhere but never stop to read them. Zazen makes me miss that show like crazy, if only because Fred and Carrie are the only people other than Veselka who can skewer that type of culture while also loving it recklessly. Also did you guys know there’s a new Optic Nerve out? A new Optic Nerve! The dream of the 90s, indeed!
Two and a half books down this week, the first two by the same author: Nathaniel West, the wicked mind that crafted the archetypical Hollywood satire The Day of the Locust and the even better Miss Lonelyhearts – one of the best and funniest novels ever written about corruption, abandoned dreams, or writing as mercenary labor. This week I scored and scarfed his two lesser-known novels, A Cool Million and The Dream Life of Balso Snell. While neither sniffs Lonelyhearts‘ great heights, each has merit, Million in particular. The titular Snell is a boy who outside Anatolia discovers the abandoned Trojan horse, climbs into the horse from its butthole, and discovers a band of outsiders living within. At its best it is a unique if not clever analogy, full of funny lines, but the end result – a conclusion suggesting that good writing is a sneaky anal assault – is heavy-handed and often borderline illegible.
Million‘s Candide-gone-wrong tale is better, though not without its own issues of stereotyped portrayal of races and oft unearned cynicism. Still, its political satire is prime West, full of vivid characters and sharp wit, and the use of direct quotation from Horatio Alger’s books as a means of parodying Alger. Who among us in 2012 pulls Nicholas Sparks or Dan Brown verbatim to fight the good fight?
Yesterday I picked up Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood for the first time in six years. It is one of the more perfect novels I’ve come across, and better than I remembered it. So finely sharpened is O’Connor’s definition of behavior-as-character that from the book’s first scene, set on a train so well depicted that it could invoke claustrophobia. I rarely reread novels, but this is one that is well deserving of another turn, as its relevance and nuance has only strengthened. It is an interesting contrast to the two West books, as all three are surreal, satirical fragmentations of hero’s quests propelled by hope. They are weird, complex journeys full of odd characters and colloquial speech. Yet the O’Connor excels by tying her shaggy dog story to a fence post: her language is tightly wound, her sentences succinctly fine-tuned.
Finally, as I write this, I’m experiencing the lit equivalent of a Saturday morning kick to the liver by watching a three hour Chris Hedges retrospective/call-in show on C-SPAN’s Book TV. Some quell hangovers with Eggs Benedict. I extinguish them by listening to a savvy lizard-man rail against corporate overlords. And alright, maybe some eggs as well.
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Thanks for the LARB podcast tip.