Friday, June 13, 2014

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This post is a sequel of sorts to one I wrote a few months ago, where I listed all of the books I'd read and offered some brief commentary. This is essentially what I would write on Goodreads if I had a profile on that site, which I do not because I find the idea of giving book's star-ratings way weirder and more off-putting that I do with rating movies on Netflix, which I do incessantly. During the early entries on this list, consider the post I wrote about drug use and know that I felt fairly weird and distracted during that era, but was progressively on the way towards feeling increasingly fine and normal. Many of these books helped. It is weird to think about the fact that some people think the redemptive power of fiction is stupid, or corny, or not the purpose of art: Art seems like it should be able to fuck people up. But there are many things more effective at fucking people up than art, and the act of creating something, even something that embraces darkness, can feel spiritual in its own way. That said, I still continue to dislike or feel indifferent to most things, even the things that I seek out because I expect to like them.

A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley. It’s cool, sort of, to read a book that a lot of people like but feels completely internalized to me, its voice so diffuse that I feel like I’ve seen it elsewhere. A man who drinks too much and feels superior to most people, although he hates himself and hangs out at his parent’s house watching television. I have friends who love this book, much like I have friends who love John Fante and Charles Bukowski, who I haven’t read, and I feel like I or any of them could write this sort of book if they engaged their worst impulses. I think that is the appeal of this sort of writing, that never feels startlingly insightful so much as it just feels honest, and honesty is sometimes enough, for some people. It can feel like it’s in short supply, or it can feel like it’s always being invoked in defense of misogyny. To each their own.

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes. Abstract enough for me to have forgotten most of it, besides the fact that I liked some parts. Weird and cryptic and mystical.

Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem. Decent historical fiction, with bits about Quakerism, and alzheimer’s. Felt thought through, lived-in, complete. History of Jewish twentieth-century New York liberalism. The characters are smart but that does not prevent them from hurting each other.

Demonology, Rick Moody. Collection of short stories, none of which spoke to me, all feeling fairly middle-class and unremarkable. Bought at a cheap price and I’m not going to be able to trade it for store credit anywhere.

Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem. I was really into this one. Riffs on the psychology of Tourette’s that seemed made up but still insightful and real. I was particularly fond of the narrator talking about relating to the 12-inch dance remixes of Prince singles. Also a really well-realized sense of location and place. Characters felt vividly realized. There’s this thing in books, where, in a movie, you can see a character and know everything about them at a glance. The drips of information where you can feel like you only fully understand a character at the end of a book works well in the mystery genre. In this book, it’s like, oh yeah, these characters that are being described, they would all hate each other, and that feels like an epiphany, placed at the end, whereas in a film body language would reveal that right from the first establishing shot.

Beloved, Toni Morrison. Totally confused by the storytelling here, to the point where halfway through I realized I had character’s genders wrong. Most people I talked to about this book while reading it admitted they found it confusing when they read it. Song Of Solomon rules though.

Europeana, Patrik Ourednik. A brief history of the twentieth-century, told in terms devoid of humanism, no proper names, only names of groups and ideologies. Compelling enough, although because of where I was at I found the autistic voice occasionally deeply terrifying.

How I Became A Nun, Cesar Aira. A short book, but still long enough for me to go “this book rules” to “well, that was disappointing.” Aira’s improvisatory style here gives way to philosophical private-world residing until the “plot” kicks in to tie up things based on what happened earlier in the book. Still sort of fun, probably the best Aira I’ve read.

Tell Me, Mary Robison. Thirty short stories, all sort of blurring together and being more traditional than the formally daring Why Did I Ever. Running theme in this list: Things being traditional in a vague literary sense and my being disappointed in them, a risk particularly likely to be run by short story collections.

The Isle Of Youth, Laura Van Den Berg. I saw Laura read in Baltimore last year, and  wasn’t really able to pay attention, blamed it on the fact that live readings are not an ideal way to take in prose. This book was revised/finished on the block I live on. Short stories, all sort of in the same wheelhouse, driven by women, tangential to the crime or noir genre, recast slightly to allow for more focus on character and ambiguity than plot. The last story in here, where people impersonate each other on false pretenses, is the best- getting more abstract in a more complicated plot that then allows for something closer to true mystery. The story I was bored by in a live reading is not that much better on the page.

5 Novels Of Daniel Pinkwater. Compendium I paid two dollars for, on the endorsement of Matthew Thurber. Young adult novels from a more innocent era, goofy and exploratory and gentle. Interesting to see the stuff of youthful fascination be mined for all the simple pleasures they afford. The last book collected is an abbreviated form, as Thurber’s article talks about a whole plot that never comes into being.

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon. I am very happy that Thomas Pynchon is still alive, and his faculties are still with him. I talked to a friend who is more of a traditional science-fiction reader who was totally thrown by Pynchon’s approach to sentences, their jumps in register from slang to technical talk.I liked this book a lot. It felt like being set closer to the present made it feel more sinister, whereas in a book like Against The Day, seeing the anarchist argument being presented in the past, feels more hopeful. Pynchon’s always fun.

Sexing The Cherry, Jeanette Winterson. I remember girls in college being really into Winterson and me not knowing what her deal was but intrigued by the obvious erotic undercurrents in the titles. Later I’d see clips of her on television talk shows, online, on a panel about the comic Kick-Ass and talking about how dumb and sexist it was. This book is her as a fantasist, and skimming it in-store particular sentences struck me as the exact sort of thing I like to read. Also I really like the illustration/design style of the current editions. Anyway. Reading it, it scanned as more vague, philosophical in tone but without much in the way of insight, besides like “Time might not be real,” “nothing might be real,” and the fantastical elements sort of go-nowhere and unsatisfying.

Miami, Joan Didion. This book rules. Journalism about something I didn’t really know about, Miami in the 1980s Cuban population- so sort of like Brian De Palma’s Scarface, only rather than be about like the excesses of capitalism it’s about a population who is really into capitalism and conservatism because of feeling fucked over by Fidel Casto and Kennedy. The figures in this book have a different sense of politics than is traditionally found in American life, which I found refreshing, even as it’s about assassinations and counter-intelligence, which is its own type of darkness, but more interesting than the brainlessness of partisan cheerleading. Apparently the Miami Cuban population is Democrat-leaning now.

The Skin, Curzio Malaparte. Yeah, another winner. One I recommended to all sorts of people. Italy is occupied by the Allies in World War II, and Naples is debasing itself to survive. Malaparte walks around, takes in the landscape, and when Americans offer judgments, counters with charming amorality. I don’t know how much of this book’s more vivid and grotesque scenes actually happened, but learning that this is what a moment in time felt like is enough. A few months after reading this I saw Walter Murch give a talk at Johns Hopkins where he talked about translating Malaparte into free verse poetry and compared the composing of poems to the editing of film, the length of lines likened to how long to hold a shot before cutting.

The Hour Of The Star, Clarice Lispector. I keep giving Lispector chances, even though I should have learned I don’t like her. I was loaned this (and her short story collection, Family Ties) by a friend and it is fairly short. Philosophical or metaphysical proclamations and repetitions. Fine enough.

Don’t Look Now, Daphne Du Maurier. I read this while going to and staying at my mom’s house over Christmas. Horror short stories that have been turned into movies by Nicolas Roeg and Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds). A fun light read, although reading short stories that you’re familiar with as movies sort of ruins the factor of shock and suspense. Other stories, where a woman gets eye surgery and sees people with animal heads, and one where a woman kills soldiers out of a hatred for war, are just as good. I feel like an idiot having as much of an allegiance to the NYRB Classics brand as I do, but the books that seem like they’ll be appealing generally are, divorced from any kind of hype cycle.

Traveling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker. I love this book, I love Nicholson Baker. Incredibly plain-spoken and straightforward, the voice in this book is able to juggle multiple things to be about- An appreciation for simple pleasures, a hatred of war and drone strikes, love of poetry and music, affection for a long-term partner, regret at mistakes made. The love of music includes both tutorials for current electronic music software and ruminations on playing classical music. One sentence, “Aphids and grubs stir cuntily in the bass clarinet,” wowed me enough to tweet, dubbing it “Best Music Writing 2013.” Highly recommended.

A Changed Man, Francine Prose. Another book picked up for two bucks, that I remembered reading praise for on Bookslut around the time of its release, although way too traditional for my tastes. This took me a very long time to read, despite its plot and easy prose. It is a novel about a skinhead trying to reform himself who ends up living with a family and working for a holocaust survivor. A friend of mine once talked about the historical origins of the traditional novel as being a kind of field-guide to all the different types of people one can meet in the modern world, and reading this sort of thing, where characters are these different sociological types, I sense a completely different appeal being attempted than what I am interested in as a reader.

Taipei, Tao Lin. Insufferable characters whose nihilism sort of convinces you that things are going to be okay by virtue of their not really mattering, through attention to detail of moment to moment inconsequential action and associated feeling. As someone who felt a little crazy from a hallucinogen experience making me feel like life wasn’t real, reading Tao’s approach to drug use, where they are not presented as profound but just as a momentary sensation, is comforting. Still not a particularly interesting book or an author or scene I feel like supporting. It seems fucked up to me that these people can tweet about wanting heroin and not have their friends say “hey, don’t do heroin.” Tao gets mad at his mom for his mom not wanting him to do drugs, and makes an argument that drugs are not a problem unless one views them as such. What a shitty and privileged way to look at as basic an impulse as one person’s concern for another. Depression and ennui are basically championed as default states, drug use as a temporary balm, with no real thought given to ways to improve one’s being, and this whole thing is sort of symptomatic of the modern world, presented in the book as without judgment. Whatever to the book in the singular, a hearty “fuck you” to this scene in the abstract, and the abundance of books with this point of view occupying readers’ brainspace. The conversation/interview between Tao and Sarah Nicole Prickett that Sheila Heti set up is pretty great though, Sarah seems like a total badass whose point of view Tao seems completely unable to understand.

Tenth Of December, George Saunders. George Saunders remains better at a certain type of short story writing than pretty much anyone else. I can remember multiple stories in this collection: Their plot, their language, imagery, and effects. Extensively praised at the time of its release. The most memorable bit to me is a sequence where a chemical allows for more articulate language floods the narrator’s nervous system. I’ve said this before: Saunder’s solution to solving the problem David Foster Wallace felt- where being incredibly articulate and self-aware stifled his ability to be direct and relatable- was to dumb down his language and make jokes, but he’s still able to shift things about some when he needs to. Few people can preach empathy as effectively.

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed. Cool book, dedicated in part to George Herriman, both a classic to a certain extent and totally neglected by most quarters. Most people I talked about this book in terms of its sheer premise thought it sounded great. The spirit of the twentieth century and modernism and jazz is presented as a voodoo curse, presented by black people, and the knights templar emerge to repress it with counter-politics positing a falsely intellectual avant-garde. True enough! Seems obvious why Ishmael Reed is not widely read, but this book is a lot of fun, written with velocity. Most satires about race from this era that I can think of are films made by white people that feel incredibly dated - (Hi Mom, Putney Swope, The Landlord) but this book rips all of that to shreds with its historical sweep.

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis. The newsstand/bookstore at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Train Station is surprisingly great, and on the way back to Baltimore I bought this book, which took me a really long time to read, owing to not being my kind of thing at all.

Memories Of The Future, Sigimund Krzhizhanovsky. Intellectual fantasias from a man whose work was never published in his lifetime, owing to the Communist regime of Russia at the time. There remains a philosophical approach to logic, contorting the language in a way that makes it less accessible than the fables of, say, a Calvino, but it’s also much more politicized, about discontent with the modern world that leads to these fantasies. Really smart and strenuous work which probably is not as enjoyable as the work of many of the artists you would want to compare it to, but each story has a memorable idea or insight inside of it.

Ablutions, Patrick Dewitt. Picked this up because I liked The Sisters Brothers a lot. This is a book about a dude working in a bar, hating himself, acting out, with some spooky bits. Good and bleak, gets harsh enough to counteract the quasi-autobiographical general conceit. The “normal guy” tone also sort of shows a knack for storytelling that explains how a western can grow out of it, that storytelling is just a form, or muscle.

Tampa, Alissa Nutting. Cool to write a book that functions as a “guilty pleasure” with the intermingling of those feelings as being a part of its point or literary effect. Told from the perspective of a sociopathic female pedophile, it manages to be pretty hot, occupying this woman’s mind. In an interview, Nutting has said her goal in writing about sex is a feminist operation, opposed to patriarchal violence. Through the scrim of language’s separation from images, readers of any orientation can feel these thoughts and fantasies palpably: Not manifesting as empathy or sympathy, but as heat within the body. Playing this transgressive trick enables it to read easy as trash while still being able to evoke a sense of culpability in the reader. Alissa’s short story in the My Mother She Ate Me, My Father He Ate Me collection, which contains a line that gives the anthology its title, is good as well, and shows her skillset runs deeper than a facility for horniness and monstrosity.

Crystal Eaters, Shane Jones. Read this twice to write a more formal review that went up on Fiction Advocate.

Master Of Reality, John Darnielle. Basically a reread, picked up one afternoon. I think I’d probably read all of this book in bookstore skims years ago. I’m excited to read John’s novel, Wolf In White Van, when it comes out.

Blindness, Jose Saramago. Flipping through this in stores, every sentence seemed brutal. An epidemic of blindness strikes, people get quarantined in a hospital, the outbreak continues to spread, conditions worsen as society collapses. Reading it and finding out that there is a narrative, not just a procession of degradations, one is comforted by the characters love for each other, their decency in resistance towards systematic oppressors. The plot is set into motion arbitrarily, and then the happy ending, where the blindness goes away, is just as arbitrary. Most would consider this book a classic; I would like to read more Saramago, but do not at the moment feel any pressing need to do so, in absence of another book being championed as loudly as this one is.

The Golden Age, Michal Ajvaz. Put out by Dalkey Archive, and described by a friend of mine as her new favorite book. She then proceeded to seem shocked and indignant that I hadn’t read it, in that moment, the first I’d heard of it. A book of porous progressions: An island exists where music has enough silence in it to blend in with atmospheric sounds, there are names for stains that objects can be likened to, and a book is collectively written, filled with digressions. Everything in the book is a demonstration of this principle, an argument against the concrete: A woman hears her neighbor composing a story through the wall filled with sexual degradation only to later learn the story was not about that at all, but that was how she interpreted the sounds: The perversions that so shocked her came from inside herself. It took me a really long time to read this, due to its lack of incident, and the way in which the type was set.

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. Reread, bought a replacement copy for one that got lent out and was never returned. I first read this book in high school and remembered finding it confusing, rereading it I realized that I had totally understood it, and remembered a lot of it, besides the fact that some of the confusion in the early going is completely deliberate, owing to its structure. I’d remembered the poem being incredibly moving but had forgotten the details of it.

99 Stories Of God, Joy Williams. I was incredibly excited to learn this book existed and then convinced I would probably never read it for lack of an e-book reader but it turns out there’s an app for that lets you read Kindle books on your computer. I still prefer paper, but I read this late one night, eyes becoming strained, soul becoming moved, feeling close to weeping. Each story places its title after its body, like a little hashtag. The weight of this book, felt more on the eyes than in the hands, and as such closer to the brain or soul than the body. Like it’s playing a trick on your tear ducts. Its prose incredibly direct in its address of the strangeness of being alive in this world. Jesus in an office building, asking “what has become of my living water?” to be responded to with “Oh, we thought that was just a metaphor.” That Williams’ conscience is consumed by issues of metaphysics, as well as environment, as well as just brutal tragedy- She is taking in so much at once that grace just emerges by virtue of these juxtapositions.

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. I tried to read this a few years ago and kept falling asleep at the density of its language. I think this was after I’d read The Road and The Sunset Limited and didn’t like either of them. Since then I read Suttree and Child Of God, liked both, and saw The Counselor, and liked it. I intended to write a blog post about The Counselor, actually: How it seems really weird as a movie because it’s all about this sort of cruelty and violence that is unearned, how people just die in it for no reason, good doesn’t triumph over evil because it’s making a point about evil’s existence. Basically, it is more like a book than a movie, and I think that’s fine, that’s the argument McCarthy wants to make. But at the same time I find his books- frequently incredibly violent, sprawling in their casts, mostly devoid of characterization, fairly frustrating and unsatisfying: They can be tedious whereas a film like The Counselor just feels constantly surprising.

Family Ties, Clarice Lispector. Do I remember anything from this book at all? I’m not sure I do. At this point I had realized that I didn’t really like her work but I might as well read this book before I returned it. I still haven’t returned it, but I have read it.

The Quick And The Dead, Joy Williams. Reread predicated on ordering a personal copy after reading this book from the library a few years ago, and writing a long essay about Joy Williams for Pleasure Editions, the gist of which is: I love Joy Williams.

The Literary Conference, Cesar Aira. Borrowed this from a friend who had it, read it very quickly. Not very good. I really dislike books about books and the world of writers. It just seems small. This book starts off with talk about a mad scientist plan to clone Carlos Fuentes, and ends with mass destruction by giant blue silkworms. And then the destruction stops. Aira views himself as a writer for readers who already read a lot, who have consumed a great deal of literature before they got to him. This is probably an accurate and self-aware thing to do, but it lowers the stakes of expressing oneself to virtually nil. Do you like to read? You can read this incredibly quickly! So basically it’s the sort of logic that leads to short stories being written on Chipotle cups, without any hope for mass appeal or communication.

The Defense, Vladimir Nabokov. This book’s fine. I kind of wish I’d read Stefan Zweig’s Chess Story instead but that will happen one day or another. Nabokov’s always pleasurable, this was one of his I hadn’t read.

Clandestine In Chile, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez died recently, and this work of journalism, reissued by NYRB Classics, was on my radar. This one is him working with the memoirs of a filmmaker, in exile under Pinochet, sneaking back into his country to make a documentary about conditions under dictatorial rule. Totally an interesting premise, but I think I might hate Marquez’s voice. It’s been a long time since I read One Hundred Years Of Solitude, but it was not so long ago that I read The Adventures Of Maqroll, by his good friend Alvaro Mutis (also recently deceased), and I hated that book as well, for the same reason I took issue with this book: The voice of the “charming rogue,” that assumes it’s ingratiating. I would rather read a book from the perspective of an unrepentant dirtbag shithead. The storytelling effect in things like this makes me feel like nothing is happening, there are no stakes, because the protagonist is always going to behave decently, everything is a “fun adventure,” and no impression is made on me whatsoever.

Partyknife, by Dan Magers. My friend Tim Paggi has been an MFA student for the past few years, and has been paying attention to the world of contemporary poetry. We met up and exchanged books. He lent me this, which I wouldn’t have read on my own. It’s got a blurb from Thurston Moore, world-renowned terrible lyricist. The voice in the poems goes from jokey alt-bro to poet-guy but always feels smug, like I could imagine the voice’s elevation of volume and subsequent pauses for laughter. I read this really quickly so I could be done with it and return it.

Tyrant Banderas, Ramon Del Valle-Inclan. This book’s cool, although not as cool as I wanted it to be. Supposedly a masterpiece and very difficult read in it’s native tongue, for the way it switches from dialect to dialect, from class to class. In English there are several examples of the sorts of sentences I am always down to read. What’s in both versions is a structure based on numerology, a large cast, and some parts that are really visceral and moving-forward, and others where things are more confusing. Some funny parts, although not laugh-out-loud funny. It was shockingly vulgar and black at the time but the jokes scan as more “gently satirical” now. I would still recommend this book, generally. It’s about a dictatorship in South America, and plots to overthrow the tyrant, aided on both sides by magic. Generally speaking, the longer an individual character is followed, the more into it I was, but for structural reasons, which I was into for their own sake, it couldn’t maintain that sort of linearity throughout the book. Another winner from NYRB Classics.

Granma Nineteen And The Soviet’s Secret, by Ondjaki. What the hell is that book, you’re asking yourself? I got a review copy as part of my attempts to write book reviews, thinking it would be pretty good, as a work in translation needs to bypass so many hurdles to exist in English. The author is African, from Angola, and writes in Portuguese. Another of his books won the Jose Saramago prize, which I didn’t know was a thing, but there you go, it is. In the end I didn’t write a real review of it, unless you count this blog post, because mostly all I wanted to say was that it was a Young Adult novel, with children as main characters, simple prose, a generally light tone, a happy ending. It’s about some kids in Angola who hatch plans to steal dynamite from Soviets so homes are not destroyed. They end up blowing up some salt and making fireworks. Granma Nineteen is so named because she has a toe cut off. It’s all very simple and straightforward. I know there’s a big controversy when people say adults shouldn’t read YA, but honestly this isn’t the sort of thing I was into when I was younger either. In middle school I remember reading Poe and Wells. Robert Cormier’s I Am The Cheese was pretty good though.

Scarecrone, by Melissa Broder. If you’re going to read poetry by a depressed person on the internet in 2014, I don’t think you can do much better than Melissa Broder. (Unless it turns out Patricia Lockwood suffers from depression and just isn’t making her work about that.) That’s a condescending way of putting it. I didn’t talk much about that John Darnielle Master Of Reality book, but in it there’s a part where the narrator talks about the idea of Ozzy Osbourne as saying “Pretend I am evil.” Even though he’s not, in many of the songs on Master Of Reality he’s advocating for Christianity, even. Broder is doing a similar thing, almost: Positing herself as witch, writing a poem called “Self-portrait as Satan,” when what she is doing is feeling gross about her body, as a woman in our society taught to fear calories, trying to turn that grossness into a power, trying to inherit some matriarchal energy whereby the feeding of menstrual blood to a man can make him love you, just trying to be happy, just wanting to be filled by God and content and talking about it in terms of sex as a way of owning degradation and power.

The Age Of Wire And String, by Ben Marcus. Completely inadvertent theme of this blog post is me being disappointed by books put out by Dalkey Archive, I guess for being too weird for me. (There are books they’ve put out I like or admire: Stanley Crawford, Stanley Elkin, Flann O’Brien, Marguerite Young) Another book lent to me by Tim. I remember people reading this in college and me looking at the first page and thinking, bullshit. Now I have more time for things I am initially dismissive of, I guess, but as I write this it seems like distrusting instincts is a waste of instincts- That’s why they’re there, hardwired in. I should trust myself. Who else do I have? Plenty of people, actually, I am well-loved. But still the point stands!

The Fifth Head Of Cerberus, by Gene Wolfe. Another book Tim lent me. People love Gene Wolfe, specifically his Book Of The New Sun. Science-fiction that plays games with expectations and the world you think you’re inhabiting. This was presented as an easier entry-point, a collection of three novellas that function as a triptych. Prior to this I’d read a massive collection of Wolfe’s short stories, that bummed me out with its authorial notes of introduction that seemed way too self-satisfied. The first story was good, interest waned a little after that point, I think I generally like to be carried more by language or an authorial voice than the way these stories like to reveal their details about the world. Science-fiction requires a level of focus, a decoding of world line by line, where other forms set in more recognizable worlds allow for a certain drift of attention, with the understanding that you’ll click when insights occur. The level of gamesmanship in a work like this is fun but I am not always so attentive.