Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Melville: A Novel by Jean Giono

This is a literary oddity that I got as a Christmas present. Giono, a respected novelist who I had not heard of before this was brought to my attention earlier this year, and a friend fell in love with Moby Dick and translated it into French. The publisher asked Giono to write an introduction, and instead he wrote this novella with a fictional version of Melville as the protagonist. It’s a fascinating idea that is a little bit of a mixed but mostly positive bag for me on first reading.

Some of this is pure fantasy, and some of it is probably based on actual events, but until I read a biography I don’t know how much of the realistic points actually happened. The book begins with what reads like literary criticism but then transitions into an imagined version of Melville’s trip to visit his English publishers to deliver the manuscript of White-Jacket. Along the way he is visited by an angel and wrestles him like Jacob. In the process he becomes dissatisfied with the seafaring adventures he’s been writing. While in England he meets a woman (who runs contraband wheat to the Irish during the famine as England watched them starve!) and between her and the angel decides to aim higher. When he gets back to America he writes Moby Dick.

I really love some of the language, and, obviously, the appreciation for Moby Dick. There are some really beautifully written passages here, especially a speech by the wheat smuggler. Writers writing about writers can get old fast. But if you’re going to write a book about an author literally wrestling with an angel on the way to literary greatness, it’s less onanistic not to write it about yourself (at least not directly). For some reason this didn’t completely land for me. Then again, neither did Moby Dick the first few times I tried. I may like this more on a second pass, and I’m certainly open to reading more of Giono’s work. But for now, it’s a mild recommendation.


Gifts and Everything Else 2020 47/35

The Thin Man by Daschiell Hammett

 The Thin Man has long been a favorite movie. A delightful screwball comedy masquerading as a crime picture. Powell and Loy are seemingly effortless as Nick and Nora Charles. The dialog is sharp and they deliver it so well. I think I’ve seen at least one of the sequels, but I can’t say for sure. But if I say I’ve watched the first one a dozen times, I’m probably not exaggerating. A few years ago I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen as part of a double feature with Sorry Wrong Number at the Carolina Theater in Durham a few years ago and won a copy of the book as a giveaway. I finally got to it last week, and while it has the bones of the same story and much of the wit, it is something else entirely.

Having read The Maltese Falcon years ago(though I should reread it as I don’t remember it well) and Red Harvest (among the best things I read this past year), I thought that the Thin Man movie was significantly different tonally from his work. And that is very true. The film version of The Thin Man is a masterful comedy that happens to have a mystery plot. The book is far darker than the film, or at the very least the darkness pushed far deeper into the subtext of the film. That’s not to say that the book isn’t funny; it is. It’s just that the book is a sleazy noir that happens to be very funny. All the caricature and innuendo that made it to the film is spelled out a little more here. 

All in all I loved this. Between it and Red Harvest (a flat out masterpiece), Hammett has risen in my estimation, and I’m regretting not having read more after The Maltese Falcon. I’m also thinking that I probably underestimated that novel. Hammett’s prose is masterful, and his dialog is up there with the Coens (who clearly have read him) and Elmore Leonard. A couple more this good and he’s up there just behind Leonard at the top of my crime writers list. Next up is The Glass Key and a probable reread of The Maltese Falcon, but I plan to read them all eventually.

Highly Recommended/Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 83/75

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish kept me up late; I read it in a couple long sittings yesterday. I picked up three books at the North Carolina Book Festival in February (one of my prearranged exceptions for my goal of not buying books in 2020), and as much as I enjoyed the other two, this was by far the best of the three. It reads like Southern Gothic by way of Nabokov, but structured by David Mitchell. But it would be reductive to say it was just that. It is its own very disturbing thing, as unsettling as any horror novel.

The book starts out in heavy territory; two sisters, 16 year old Edith (Edie) and her younger sister Mae have moved from Louisiana to live with their estranged father, Dennis, a famous author and former Civil Rights activist) in the wake of their mother’s (Marianne) suicide attempt. The narration is fractured. Edith’s sections are first person present tense as the events happen in 1997. Mae writes in the past tense from an initially indeterminate perspective. There are interjection chapters, usually in the past tense from other characters. Interspersed throughout are letters to and from the parents, passages from their journals, interviews, transcripts of phone calls and notes from the mother’s psychiatric hospital. I’m on record saying that this is one of my favorite narrative techniques, and Apekina is a master at it. It fits the material so well. It allows the reader’s sympathies to be drawn in entirely the wrong directions then brought back with force without cheating.

It has very potent political themes. The hypocrisy of a lot of leftist white people being woke for shady reasons, without denying the importance of being politically aware. The damage that one man can have on the women around him. But, like Nabokov, the work is not some vessel for ideology. Apekina cleverly has Dennis say his books are not propaganda while his interlocutor says maybe a little of that isn’t too bad? And while there are a couple of chapters that show that Apekina has a point of view, she clearly takes the position that the art is more important. And the political points are only strengthened by that approach.

The book also raises ethical questions of how much real life should be put into a work of art. Discussion of this point will involve spoilers, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want them. Initially the book sets the reader up to be sympathetic toward Dennis, the father driven away by his wife’s problems who gladly seizes an opportunity to take in his daughters even after years of estrangement. Edith’s resentment of him seems to be on a trajectory of eventual reconciliation and Mae’s instant acceptance seems more reasonable. But as the novel progresses Dennis is gradually revealed to be a monster of sorts. He seems to have used the Civil Rights stuff as literary fodder, and he abandons his comrades in arms after they are no longer useful to him. He then grooms the underage Marianne, marries her when she is 17 and then abuses her into being a muse. Edie is right to flee him and Mae’s attachment to her father seems to be another grooming situation. This is dark dark stuff. Many make art out of their trauma, but where’s the line between that and creating trauma to create art? This very nicely undercuts, or at least complicates, the myth of the artist while also affirming the importance of art. And while the women in Dennis’s life are clearly his victims, they have their own issues as well and are not painted as mere wide eyed innocents. And this is not set up as some sort of moral equivalence between them and him; it just gives everyone their humanity.

This is a tough read content wise, but on prose and structure levels is absolutely compelling. It deals with trauma and mental illness in an emotionally real way without being overly sentimental. The structure of the book gives it enough unreality to give it a mythic quality that is satisfying. It is unrelenting in its portrayal of the darkness of the world it explores, and yet it is not hopeless. I will certainly be reading Apekina’s next book. This one was outstanding.

Canon Worthy

Book Festival Exceptions and Everything Else 2020 45/35

Wyoming by JP Gritton

I heard JP Gritton read at the North Carolina Book Festival this past February, and his debut novel Wyoming was one of the three books I picked up there as exceptions to my no book buying this year policy. A friend of mine, one of the organizers of the festival, recommended this and The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina as the books represented there that would most likely fit my tastes. He was right on both counts.

Wyoming sits comfortably on the same shelf as Winter’s Bone, No Country For Old Men or Tishomingo Blues. I love rural noir, and this is an admirable entry in that genre. Like the first two of those, it would make for an excellent movie in the right hands. Shelley Cooper is a protagonist with a deep seated anger and a propensity to make the worst possible decision every time he gets a chance. His resentment of his brother, his best friend, his ex-wife and others appears boundless. The cruel world of bone deep poverty in which he lives explains a lot of this, and explains why when asked by his brother to deliver pot grown in Colorado to Texas (the state of the title is metaphor not setting) he has to take the chance. Predictably, given the genre, the poverty and Cooper’s sheer cussedness, things go awry after the dropoff.

*Spoiler in this paragraph*

The narrative alternates between the delivery/its aftermath and the story of Cooper’s past. As in most rural noir, the world is a cruel, unrelenting place and Cooper’s mindset fits this world perfectly. What keeps this from being performative nihilism is that the reader gradually realizes that Cooper is a closeted gay man and dealing with the dual pressures of that and poverty have driven him to a very dark place. I probably should have picked up on this earlier in the book, but I twigged to it about halfway through. How this would play to a gay reader, I can’t say, but it worked for me.

*End Spoiler*

This is an excellent debut novel. On the basis of it and the essay that Gritton read at the Book Festival, I am looking forward to more of his work. 

Highly Recommended

Book Festival Exceptions and Everything Else 2020 44/35

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Fools In Town Are On Our Side by Ross Thomas

The Fools in Town Are On Our Side commits my biggest pet peeve in crime fiction, that is that a character is raped and murdered, seemingly only with the intention of giving motivation to her husband, the main character. In that trope’s (cliche’s?) defense, that would provide explanation for a lot of different things and would shatter a person. Not so much as it shattered the dead character, though, which elision is why this trope bothers me so much. I love James Lee Burke’s prose style, but would like the books even more if the small sample size I’d read didn’t have such a high percentage of dead wives. I do appreciate that Thomas doesn’t use it to prop up a kill crazy rampage; rather it explains, to some extent, the protagonist, Lucifer Dye’s (yes, Lucifer Dye, Thomas has a gift for oddball names), cynicism and numb amorality. Using this trope dings the book for me, but it is, despite that, a sleazy masterwork of dirty politics.

This is my second Ross Thomas novel. I read The Fourth Durango a couple years ago. It was also about political intrigue, but less sleazy. I picked it up because Thomas sometimes gets compared favorably to my favorite crime writer, Elmore Leonard. I can see it. Thomas is much wordier, but he has a similar knack for dialog and for closing a scene/chapter on a strong line. I like his style. But reading this, which is usually mentioned as one of Thomas’s best, it plays much more like a much nastier version of Red Harvest by Hammett or the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing once the backstory is set. 

Lucifer Dye was born in Montana and raised in a bordello in Shanghai, until he was driven out by WWII. He and his father figure spent time in a makeshift Japanese jail until they are traded back to the US. He’s recruited by a shady government agency called Section 2 and marries the boss's daughter (here he encounters the tragedy that is my main complaint with the book). Then he runs Section 2’s Hong Kong office until things go sideways and he ends up back in the states and cut loose from the agency in the late 60s. He is hired by a shady outfit to (further) corrupt a midsize Texas city so that it’s former leaders can retake control on a reform ticket. Dye delivers by playing various criminals and politicians against each other. Thomas doesn’t draw much of a distinction between the two. 

The Fools In Town Are On Our Side won me over despite the reservation concerning the dead wife. It’s also very frank in it’s depiction of racism, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for being put off by that. But you believe these characters are that racist. It is a sleazy world. I felt gross afterwards. Despite reading as a believably late 60’s/early 70’s crime novel, its cynical (or clear-eyed depending on your perspective) take on politics seems relevant.* It really doesn’t hold back in its depiction of the amoral power struggle for the fate of the town, and leaves you wondering if you’re one of the titular fools. Sleazy amoral forces vying for power feels too relevant.

Highly Recommended (based on my scale, but I’m not sure to whom. It’s a bleak, sleazy read)

Owned But Previously  Unread 2020 82/75

*There’s also a gangster in therapy a full thirty years before The Sopranos!

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Early December Rereads

 I want to highlight my past three rereads, all great:

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link:

The second time through this excellent collection. As on the first read, only the first story didn’t work for me. But I will give it another read next time I visit the collection because Link deserves the benefit of the doubt. The second story really works despite how wrong she gets library staffing. All the others are unqualifiedly great. The standouts for me are Flying Lessons, one of the best contemporary reworkings of greek myth I’ve read, Survivor’s Ball, or The Donner Party which is as delightfully weird as the title would indicate and Most of My Friends are Two Thirds Water which is one of the best “in the manner of Phillip K Dick” stories I’ve read.


Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose- Mild Recommendation

Water Off a Black Dog’s Back- Highly Recommended

The Specialist’s Hat- Canon Worthy

Flying Lessons- Canon

Travels With the Snow Queen- Canon Worthy

Vanishing Act- Canon Worthy

Survivor’s Ball, or The Donner Party- Canon

Most of My Friends are Two Thirds Water- Canon Worthy

Louises's Ghost- Canon Worthy

The Girl Detective- Canon Worthy

Overall Collection: Canon Worthy/Canon

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

2019 Review:

An amazing carnavalesque historical serial killer thriller. Not a lot to add to my previous review, other than to say this time through, in addition to the Devil In the White City and Geek Love comparisons, I would add that I was reminded of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Carter Beats the Devil, though this is considerably darker than either of those. Even better on reread. I may well mark 2019 as the year in which I discovered Elizabeth Hand, who, earlier this year, I realized is my favorite living writer.


Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe.


2019 Review:

Don’t have much to add to last year’s review. The first of the three interrelated novellas is still one of the most perfect, and perfectly horrible, things I’ve read. I’ve opted to take Wolfe’s Peace off of my annual reread list, but this stays on. A masterpiece of a mosaic novel.


Rereads and Everything Else 2020 40-42/35

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Best First Time Fiction Reads 2020

2020, terrible in so many ways, was, at least a good reading year. I usually rank my first time reads, but I’m not sure that’s a great way to approach it. This year, I’m listing nineteen books that I read for the first time that were flat out great. I’m looking through the list trying to find a number one, but at least five or six would take that title on a given day. So here it is. 

Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey

The Confidence Man by Herman Melville

The Course of the Heart by M John Harrison 

Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand

God’s Country by Percival Everett

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

Last Summer at Mars Hill by Elizabeth Hand

The Likeness by Tana French

Looking for Jake by China Mieville

Palimpsest by Catherine Valente

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke*

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

And here are an additional sixteen, all very good and read for the first time this year, that might jump up if I were making this list on a different day or on reread. This Census Taker and Different Seasons were the hardest to not put in the upper tier.

Alien Virus Love Disaster by Abbey Mei Otis

Different Seasons by Stephen King

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

Hard Light by Elizabeth Hand

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley

Midnight Robber Nalo Hopkinson

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Nicotine by Nell Zink

NumberNineDream by David Mitchell

The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzche and Other Odd Acquaintances by Peter Beagle

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

Silas Marner by George Eliot.

Tar Baby by Toni Morrison

This Census Taker China Mieville

Caveat: I hope to read Pierre (and maybe White-Jacket) by Herman Melville, The Glass Key by Daschiell Hammett, and Lamb by Christopher Moore, and those could end up somewhere on the list.


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (ever so slightly updated review)

 After reading Moby Dick for the eighth time last year it surpassed Pale Fire as my favorite novel, and after reading his short stories and The Confidence Man, Melville has surpassed Gene Wolfe as my favorite writer. I will be rereading this every year and his other books often. I hope to read Pierre and White-Jacket soon. I’ve copied my review from my 2018 reread below with a couple of minor edits. 

On this ninth readthrough, I became even more convinced that Melville should be considered alongside Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Pascal and Nietsche as precursors to Existentialism, especially after reading The Confidence Man for the first time. I was even more obnoxious about posting quotes on social media this year. I said it last year, nearly every page is quotable. And again, I want the mood and language of the book in my head.


Annual Reread 2020 5/8 

Rereads and Everything Else 2020 37/35

2019 review, lightly edited:

I could tell that Moby Dick has settled into the mulch of my brain over the past few years when I was in a terrible mood at work recently and actually had the thought that I needed “a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable me to grin and bear it.” I was amused, but after time I was pretty happy about that. I want Ishmael’s voice and the mood of this novel in my head like I want the dialog from Deadwood or a Coen Brothers movie there, or the poetry of  Auden, Yeats, Jeffers, Heaney or Porter.  Whatever else Moby Dick may be, it’s a five or six hundred page poem to madness, obsession, the implacability of death, the ocean and the whale. I heard a preacher say once that looking at vast things “gets the smallness out of you,” and Moby Dick serves a similar purpose; it very much gets me outside of my head.

The Seneca bit was a surprise to me, but there are lines and images from the book that I think about regularly. In reference to a rival whaling ship captain who went in chase of un-catchable Fin-Back whales thinking they were the more valuable Sperm Whales the narrator says, “O, many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dereks, my friend.” This I apply liberally to many discussions both in person and online when I or someone I’m talking to has lost the plot. There’s an image of Captain Ahab toward the end holding a flaming harpoon as he tries to calm his men that haunts me. I think of Stubbs saying, "I wonder, Flask, whether the world is anchored anywhere; if she is, she swings with an uncommon long cable, though." I think about the image of the clam looking up through the water and not comprehending the world above the water. I think of tiny Ahab threatening Moby Dick even as he’s being destroyed. I think of how perfectly the first chapter captures the mood of restlessness that possesses me at times. I think about the line, "There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own” which is as good a one line summation of existentialism I’ve heard outside of the TV show Angel* despite having been written nearly a century before Existentialism proper came along. He undercuts that a bit in the next few lines in which the joke is portrayed as a nudging joke among friends. The overall arc of the novel restores it to the level of existential quandary. I could go on. Like Middlemarch, which I read for the first time this year, every page is quotable.

Moby Dick has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as science fiction and fantasy. It evokes a sense of wonder, one of the many stated goals of SFF. It plunges you into an unknown world and builds that world out for you. This is especially true for a modern reader, but Melville seems skeptical that even his contemporaries would get it. That world is used to reflect upon and make observations about the world in which the reader lives. There is a prophecy that came true after a fashion. There’s a monstrous creature that is imbued with mythical significance. There is also a lot of exposition, often in chapters that could fairly be called what genre readers refer to as info-dump. The extended chapter on Cetology, the study of whales, is famously tedious as is the chapter on the color white. I was reminded, this time through, of Neal Stephenson going on for pages in Cryptonomicon about how computer monitors work. I usually skip the Cetology and white chapters on my annual reread of Moby Dick, but this year I pushed through then, and was glad I did. Even those chapters have many lines that made them worth reading. In the case of Moby Dick, as in the case of a lot of (though certainly not all) SFF, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses for me. I will not begrudge the person who bails on the novel during the Cetology chapter; I will say that once I pushed through it and reread the whole a couple of times it became one of my favorite novels despite those sections.

Moby Dick is a book that it is very easy to project onto; the reader will likely find what they want in it. What is Moby Dick? A story about the implacability of death? Of obsessive madness? An attempt towards a liberal (by the standards of its time) theology? A secretly atheist parable? A disguised gay romance? A hifalutin version of a Boy’s Own adventure tale? A precursor to existentialism?  A story of a far more diverse cast than the time usually produced with relatively positive portrayals of people from a variety of ethnicities (excluding Fedallah, and to some extent Pip)? An extended prose poem to some or all of these? I’ve long held that authorial intent matters more than the current discourse, at least on the internet, allows for. This book confounds that to some extent. I don’t know a lot about the circumstances that Melville wrote in, so I’m left to textual clues and to my own experience of the book. This is further complicated by a scene that reads almost as a series of monologues in a play as several characters in turn muse on the symbolism of the doubloon that Ahab has nailed to the mast and promised to the person who first sights Moby Dick. Melville seems to quite literally be goading the reader into multiple readings, or at least illustrating the way that different people will respond to it differently. I think that all of those readings, and many I haven’t thought of can plausibly be read into the story.

It’s clear that Melville conceived this as a shot at greatness; he says at one point, "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it." To my mind he has achieved that. He obviously went to great pains to render the events of the book believable to those who have not been on a whaling voyage in the first half of the 19th century. Beyond that I won’t make claims about his intentions. I will fall back on my experience of the book, which is one that I want to repeat annually, and lives in my mind between readings. As one of my annual rereads, it is clearly a favorite. With this reread, and one of Peace by Gene Wolfe and a first time read of Middlemarch this year, Pale Fire is not as secure in the spot of my favorite novel as it has been for the past several years. I’m ok with that. [note from 2020: Moby Dick has taken the top spot]


* The line from Angel is “If nothing we do matters, then the only thing that matters is what we do.”

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Deception by Jia Tolentino

I appreciate writers who have an ideology but are not ideologues; people who make no bones about their perspective and argue strongly from that perspective, but acknowledge that the world is more complicated than is explainable from only one viewpoint.  Jia Tolentino, who is writing from a feminist and anti-capitalist viewpoint does this with aplomb in this excellent collection of essays. Often with cultural criticism the author takes a pose of certainty in their pronouncements. The subtitle of Trick Mirror, Reflections on Self-Delusion, is a tip that Tolentino does not exempt herself from her own critical eye. The result is a bracing and thoughtful collection that, even where I disagreed with her on some specific point or another, forced me to think and to engage in my own self reflection.

The I In the Internet, a great opener, does a great job of talking through the nascent hope that the internet could be a force for good, and that writers on the internet could be, but how that has been somewhat wrecked by the current state of social media. Among other things, Tolentino grapples with her place as a person who writes on the internet for a living. I appreciated the tension that brought. While I enjoyed the entire collection, the other three standout essays for me were; Always Be Optimizing, which discusses the state of feminism in the context of the exercise industry specifically and under capitalism in general; The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams, which is on some level an anti-Trump essay, but contextualizes him in a much longer string of recent cons, which, to paraphrase a conversation with the friend who recommended the book to me, makes it palatable in a way many think pieces about Trump are not; and The Cult of the Difficult Woman which discusses the difficult woman trope, and the limits of that trope. Concerning that last essay, I am ill equipped to opine too strongly about feminism. Still, the essay is a masterclass in exploring the implications of an ideology, and the tricky waters you can find yourself in when your ideological arguments are used to prop up ideologies inimical to your own. 

I read a library copy of this, but once my non-book buying year is over, I will pick up my own, as I want to reread this or at least refer to several of the essays again. I love complexity and doubt in a writer. Even more, I appreciate when a writer admits their own foibles, shortcomings and is aware that they have blind spots. That only strengthens their arguments for my money. Tolentino is such a writer. 

Highly Recommended

Library Books And Everything Else 2020 36/35

*In one essay Tolentino calls CS Lewis the “weirdest and most literary” of Christian writers. I’d say that Frederick Buechner at least, among writers seen as “Christian writers," bests him on both counts. (I just wanted to say that, but didn’t really have a good place to drop it in.)

Monday, November 30, 2020

Murder of Angels by Caitlin Kiernan

I really should have read Caitlin Kiernan’s early books in order. When I looped back to the early stuff after loving the Tin Foil Dossier books (Agents of Dreamland and Black Helicopters) and her standalones The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl, I started with Daughter of Hounds, her sixth published novel and third in a loose series. Kiernan is a writer who makes the reader do some of the work, and I did find my way into enjoying the book quite a bit, but I would have twigged to it much more quickly if I’d also read the two previous books featuring Chance Matthews, the protagonist of Threshold and Low Red Moon, off screen here. Those I read in order and enjoyed them more. This year I read her excellent debut Silk. Murder of angels is her fifth published book, but it is a direct sequel to Silk. I’m pretty sure that these are tangentially related to the Chance books, but because I read them in such a haphazard order I can’t trace precisely how. Each book does give you enough to follow along, but knowing what came before adds layers of meaning. I hope to reread the Threshold and the rest again early next year. All that said, Murder of Angels is a great horror fantasy.

Silk was a centaur; half gen-x goth bohemian wasteland literary novel and half cosmic horror. Near the end of that first book, in a peyote ceremony gone horribly wrong, Spyder Baxter’s friends let loose a horror that she had been shielding them, and herself, from for years. The cosmic horror was wrapped up in her own childhood trauma. This pairing of the cosmic or supernatural horror with trauma is a hallmark of Kiernan’s work. Murder of Angels, which picks up around a decade later with the survivors of Silk is no exception. 

Nicky Ky, who drifted into Birmingham at the beginning of Silk and became Spyder’s lover for a time, has been wrecked by the trauma from the first book. From Spyder turning into some type of supernatural monster, and from the suicide of of a previous lover. The latter the reason she was drifting at Silk’s opening. Niki is in a relationship with Daria, another survivor of the first book, now a rock star. Spyder is now in an alternate horrific dimension in which she is a mystical god-like being called the Weaver and is engaged in a full scale war with another demigod/monster called the Dragon that Spyder is convinced is her abusive father chasing her through dimensions. Nicky is drawn into that dimension and conflict and Daria must help from the mundane world. 

So described, this could seem overly melodramatic. But Kiernan’s literary modernist approach to language and frank approach to discussing mental illness grounds it. The writing, the genre mashing, the mental health themes and the overall mood of this book only strengthens Kiernan’s place among my favorite writers. 

Highly Recommended bordering on Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 80/75

Monday, November 23, 2020

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

I had not heard of Patrick Modiano before, with the caveat that I most likely saw the announcement that he won the Nobel Prize in 2014, was briefly sad that it wasn’t Cormac McCarthy (who I was rooting for to get the award at the time), and moved on. Recently, though, in an online book group, this book got mentioned and it really piqued my interest.

Dora Bruder is partly fiction and partly based on actual research. The story begins in the late eighties with Modiano reading an article in an issue of the Paris Soir newspaper from 1942 in which he sees a notice about a missing girl, Dora Bruder, then fifteen. She ran away from her boarding school in occupied Paris, and her family was concerned. She and her family were Jewish, and, predictably, things go very poorly for them. Saying spoiler alert for a book about Jewish experience in WWII tips the hat where the book ultimately goes. Throughout the text, Modiano describes the research that he does to learn Dora’s story to tell it. His father, also Jewish, was in Paris at the same time as Dora. Modiano masterfully describes the process by which the historical resonances of the streets in which he grew up are brought home to him. This weaving of Modiano’s and his father’s story with the scant available details of Dora Bruder’s life is masterfully done. 

It’s not clear to me on one reading how much of this is fictionalized vs documented. Either way. by the end of the book Modiano has considered deeply the dark history of the place in which he lived.That process clears space for a commensurate process in the mind of the reader, both in terms of thinking about the horrors of the holocaust and of thinking of the history of their own cities. It’s a subtle thing he pulls off here and it took time for the full impact of it to hit me. Nevertheless, it was a powerful book and I look forward to reading more of Modiano’s work.

Highly Recommended  

Library Books and Everything Else 35/35

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (2020 reread)

I’ve lightly edited my review from my eleventh time through in 2019 and pasted it below. I stand by what I said then, with the one exception that Moby Dick surpassed it as my favorite book later last year. That is no insult to Pale Fire. Moby Dick is just that good.

There are a myriad of ways to read this, and this time, I liked to think that Kinbote was an invention of John Shade, who allowed him to exercise his creativity and distance himself from his grief and suicidal feelings because of his daughter’s death while at the same time he enhancing the impact of that grief by juxtaposing it with so much humor.

That’s not my final say on what the book means, but the book is simultaneously hilarious and utterly gut-wrenching and that reading highlights that. I had considered taking it out of yearly rotation now that I have read it twelve times, but it stays in for at least another year. It may not be my absolute favorite anymore, but it isn’t far behind.


Annual Reread 2020 4/8

2019 Review:

Pale Fire is my favorite novel was my favorite novel until Moby Dick surpassed it later last year. If my personal canon could contain only one book, this would be it. This is my 11th time reading it (once sometime before 2002 when I started logging my reading, once in 2007 and once a year since 2011). It is now tied with The Moviegoer, Godric and Til We Have Faces as the book that I’ve read the most as an adult. That being said, I feel at a loss to write about it. Is it a great author thumbing his nose at professional critics? Is it a bored poet making up a maniacal neighbor in order to create a different form of art? Is it a meditation on grief and suicide? Is it a comedy? Is it the story of a king in exile? It could be any or several of those things. I find something new in it each time I read it.

The book consists of two parts. The first is the final poem, Pale Fire, of a famous poet, John Shade, primarily about his relationship with his wife as they deal with the suicide of their only daughter. The other is an introduction to and annotations on the poem by his neighbor, Charles Kinbote, who managed to get the right to edit and annotate it for publication after being present at Shade’s murder. The notations largely express frustration that the poem was about Shade’s daughter. Kimbote believed throughout the poem’s composition that it would be about the exiled king of Kinbote’s home country, Zembla, who escaped imprisonment by revolutionaries and the gradual approach of Shade’s killer. Kinbote believes the murderer was an assassin sent to kill the king. The notes twist the poem into a highly entertaining novel. It is clear early on that the neighbor is suffering from some form of mental illness. Gradually it becomes clear that he believes himself to be that exiled king now teaching at the same school as Shade. The notes only begrudgingly refer to the actual content of the poem and as the book progresses, they become more and more detached from the lines, at times using a single word as a launchpad for the next portion of his story.

Kinbote personifies critics who put too much of themselves into a critique of the work at hand. On one level, the last line of Kinbote’s introduction, “To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed, but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the final word” is true. But often works get criticized for things they are not even trying to do, and then the criticism might say more about the critic than the work. Pale Fire mocks this mercilessly. Kinbote, though, is an unreliable narrator. He says in the introduction that "without my notes Shade's text simply  has no human reality at all." He tries to build the case that Shade was a dear friend whose attempts at writing an epic of the escape/exile of the Zemblan King were stymied by his wife who had it in for Kinbote. Kinbote's madness shows through, though, and the reader will look past Kinbote's intent and understand how unsettling he was to everyone around him. Shade's poem does have human reality. So two plausible readings of Pale Fire are that authorial intent matters, or that it doesn’t. Here I may be reading myself into the text by saying that more likely he’s making the argument that I would make: authorial intent matters up to a certain point, more than most contemporary critics would admit, but it can only go so far.

On this reread, as I followed Kinbote’s attempt to force his theme into Shade’s work and his stalker behavior, I couldn’t help thinking of the toxic internet fandom of things like Star Wars or the MCU. None of them get to edit and annotate the official release of Endgame, but there is a little bit of Kinbote’s mania and total lack of self awareness there.

Nabokov was famous for not taking strong public political stands beyond a general anti-Lenin and Stalin stance. In Pale Fire, Kinbote says at one point that “art creates its own reality” and that seems to be a fair assessment of Nabokov’s attitude towards his work.  Nabokov had good reason to hate the Soviets. He lived nearly all of his adult life in exile in the wake of the October Revolution. His father was for liberal reform, but was not Bolshevik and so the family had to flee Russia. There are too many layers of fictionalization to imply a one to one relation to Nabokov’s life. It’s hard, though, to read Kinbote’s narrative of a person being driven to madness and suicidal ideation by exile without seeing some parallel.

I still haven’t talked about how funny the novel is. Or how it can work as straightforward escape/crime story. Or how it treats Kinbote’s homosexuality as normal. Or how the poem could stand on its own, even if it would likely not be as revered. Or how there’s a great argument about the existence of God, and if Nabokov has the madman arguing for faith he still has him argue relatively well. Or how Nabokov is one of the best prose stylists ever. Or how it doesn’t excuse Kinbote’s behavior, but it does take his mental illness seriously, and has more pity for him than Nabokov usually does for his characters.

Lolita is Nabokov’s most famous book because of its scandalous subject matter, and it is a great novel. But Pale Fire is his masterpiece and it’s not even close.


The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

When I read this back in 2016, I said that aside from a couple quibbles about the ending I enjoyed it thoroughly and that I thought the stakes were perfect; believably high without the threat of the end of the world. On this reread, for a book club, I still have one quibble about the ending (regarding the identity of two characters), but I was more completely taken with the book this time. I love a carnivalesque story with fantasy or magical realist touches. While I would give the edge in this weird subgenre to Geek Love, Swamplandia and Nights at the Circus which are all a little darker than this, it very much belongs on the same shelf. I enjoyed it even more this time. 

The novel opens as the famous magician Prospero, whose stage show is actual magic masquerading as an illusionist show, discovers he has a daughter, Celia, who, once he has been given custody of her in the wake of her mother’s death, has some natural capacity for magic. He contacts a friend/rival, called Mr. Alexander, and proposes another in an apparently long series of contests between their apprentices. Alexander agrees and chooses a boy named Marco and teaches him how to use magic, in a much more academic, less intuitive way. The rest of the book is the decades long magical duel between the two acolytes on the field of a mysterious circus that appears in a town fully set up, runs only at night, then one day disappears as quickly as it showed up.

And the circus itself is what is brilliant about the book. The two young magicians strive to create attractions for the circus that will dazzle. Marco is a behind the scenes partner of the person who nominally owns the circus and does bookkeeping and planning. Celia takes up her father’s mantle and becomes a performer who does real magic disguised as illusions. As they meet and gradually realize they are antagonists, they begin to try to impress and outdo each other even as they, inevitably, fall for each other. That the central conflict/battle of the novel is aesthetic rather than moral is bracing. This is not a good vs. evil with MCU level world ending stakes. And yet ethical/moral questions creep in as they realize the effect their duel is having on the other members of the circus. The stakes, as I said four years ago, are perfect. 

I am a still annoyed at who Mr. Alexander and Prospero are revealed to be and how on the nose the info dump at the end that makes sure the reader gets it. I think Morgenstern seeded that throughout the book well enough that the explanation was unnecessary. But that didn’t ruin the experience. Other than that small complaint and my mild aversion to love-conquers-all finales in general,  I loved it. It’s straightforward plotwise, and the prose is good. And the exhibits the combatants create linger in the mind, which is much of the point. I will read more of Morgenstern’s work and will probably read this at least a third time.

Highly Recommended 

Rereads And Everything Else 31/35

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Liars' Club by Mary Karr

I’ve had a copy of this on the shelf for years. I picked it up at a library sale in Raleigh after hearing about her. I’m sure that Karr is frustrated that her name is always linked with David Foster Wallace. By all accounts he was awful to her. But I have to admit that, despite the fame of these books, it was hearing about her experiences with DFW that put her on my radar. As I said in a review of a book of interviews with DFW, I don’t pretend not to love his work, but neither do I pretend he was some paragon of virtue. I look forward to returning to his essays. But I did think that I should give Karr a shot, and that interview collection reminded me I had The Liars’ Club and Lit on the shelf. I am so glad I finally got around to reading one of them, because, quite apart from how I came to read it, it is a masterful memoir, belonging on the same shelf with the great southern writers.

Karr’s childhood was extremely traumatic. She opens the memoir in the aftermath of something that involved her, her mom and a knife. Near the end of the first section, covering a year of her life in Texas in 1961, the event she teased in the opening is revealed in context. That was not the only trauma she experienced that year. The second section is called “Colorado 1963” and covers her time living there with her mother and sister. This chapter was perhaps more privileged, but still traumatic. The final section happens 17 years later as she is in college and her father is dying. Given the bleak content (so bleak that an epigraph from Blood Meridian is entirely appropriate), that the book is as funny as it is is a serious achievement.

Karr’s prose is in turns poetic and acerbic, peppered with great lines like, “In Grandmother’s defense, she was dying of cancer at 50, which can’t be good for your disposition.” A chapter or section begins, "Maybe if Mother hadn't taken it in her head to shoot Hector, we'd have never got back to Texas." But the book is not merely despairing or sarcastic. As Karr says towards the end, “I never knew despair could lie.”I would not wish aspects of Karr’s childhood on anyone, but I am very glad that she survived and wrote this, and I’m looking forward to more of her work. 

Highly Recommended

Owned but Previously Unread 79/75

Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti

Over the past decade or so, I’ve gradually become a fan or at least an appreciator of horror fiction, and as that process happened, I began to hear Thomas Ligotti’s name as one of the foremost horror practitioners of the craft. He was spoken of as if he were here to dominate the world that Lovecraft opened up, with a bleakness Lovecraft couldn’t touch. So, when I saw a copy of the omnibus of his first two collections, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe at a used bookstore a year or so ago, I snapped it up. I finally got around to reading the first of those collections and have to say they largely lived up to the hype.

Ligotti’s ability to create an oppressive atmosphere that is truly horrifying is tied directly to his essentially pessimistic/nihilistic view. His core philosophical idea, to the extent that I understand it from the borderline nonfiction pieces in this collection without having read his philosophical book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, is that there is absolutely no reason to hope or to think that there is any objective good and that in, any attempts to say otherwise, people are lying either to others or to themselves. I don’t share that view, though I am tempted by it at times. I fall closer to the existentialist view best expressed in the TV show Angel (of all places), “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” It’s a subtle distinction, but it is a distinction nonetheless. But in Ligotti’s fiction, the pessimistic conviction goes bone deep and is as much a source of horror as anything supernatural happening. 

Despite that, once I got on the storys’ wavelength I enjoyed the collection as a whole. The standout stories, for me, were “The Lost Art of Twilight," "Masquerade of a Dead Sword: A Tragedie," “Dr. Voke and Mr. Veech,” and most of all, “Vastarian.” That last is among the best stories I read this year, a year in which I read great work from China Mieville, Elizabeth Hand, Abbey Mei Otis, Peter Beagle and Ted Chiang. I’m not as fond of Ligotti yet as his most vocal fans, but I very much get what they’re on about.

Highly Recommended

From An Omnibus and Everything Else 2020 29/35

Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone (The Gormenghast Novels Omnibus) by Mervyn Peake

These novels have the reputation of being the Ur text of one of the non-Tolkienian branches of fantasy literature. I picked up a copy of an omnibus of the three novels in the sequence Peake wrote and some critical literature over a decade ago (I think) when I first heard of his influence. Now, having finally read them, I get what people mean. While it seems to be written in a premodern world (at least for the first two volumes) it is not pastoral or rural. China Mieville’s New Crobuzon novels, and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi come immediately to mind as works that I love that have a little of this in their DNA. Titus Alone, the third book, is notoriously different from and not as good as the first two. This is seemingly attributed by most to Peake’s declining mental faculties. But, given how much of a left turn it is from the first, I’m not sure it would entirely work as part of the sequence if Peake was at the top of his game. That said, it is not nearly as bad as its reputation would indicate, and if it were not in the Gormenghast sequence I think it would stand as a very good book indeed. But as a continuation of the series to which it belongs it doesn’t quite work.

The first two volumes are the masterpieces they are reputed to be. The characters are grotesque, somewhat in the style of Dickens but more exageratedly gothic, almost caricatures. But as the novels progress they become more than that. Peake’s character development and world building are similar; a character starts as all tics and mannerisms but as they move through Gormengast castle both they and it gradually form in the mind as a seemingly real world. The main antagonist of the series has a hero’s introduction. It looks as if he will rise from kitchen scullion to some type of heroic rank. And that is the arc he tries to give himself. But it is by way of scheming sociopathy. 

All three books have the tone of satire. The endless rituals to which the characters are subject are rendered in hilariously harsh language worthy of Flannery O’Connor. It was not immediately clear to me towards what target that satire was aimed. In the third book the freedom from ritual longed for by several of the characters is somewhat literalized. My first thought, given my religious background and subsequent apostasy, was to see it as the story of a formerly religious person or society unable to come to terms with modernity. After some online discussion, I almost completely buy that it was in large part about the British monarchy stumbling as it moves into the modern, and probably specifically the postwar period. Like many metaphors, though, it could fit several things, including that post-religious reading. But it is not an allegory, or at least not primarily that. That biting satire is there, but the world of Gormenghast is more than just that. It is a place that lingers in the mind long after the reading. 

And all this is rendered in dense, beautiful prose. The writing alone would make the reading of the books worth it. The first book is the story of Gormenghast and its inhabitants during the first year of life of Titus Groan, the heir of the Earl. The second begins seven years later and sees Titus through to his late teen years. That second book adds a psychological thriller/examination of a sociopath strand without breaking tone with the first book. And what happens to Gormenghast itself in the climax is nothing I saw coming and was breathtaking. These two worked for me a hundred percent and I will be returning to them over and over, I suspect. The third book has grown on me with a couple of weeks distance from the reading and further thought. I don’t think it works as part of the trilogy, but I do like it in a different way. Great reading experience.

Titus Groan- Canon Worthy

Gormenghast- Canon Worthy

Titus Alone- Recommended 

Books read 105-107/110

Owned but previously Unread 2020 78/75

In An Omnibus and Everything Else 2020 27-28/35

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Godric by Frederick Buechner

"How seemly is a life when told to children thus, with all the grief and ugliness snipped out. I suppose it's how monk Reginald will tell of mine." 

This line from late in Godric gets at the main tension in the book. Saint Godric of Finchale is reflecting on his life and telling the story to a monk named Reginald who tends him in his old age (roughly 100 years old). Reginald did, of course, write just the sort of hagiography that Godric is worried about. Because Godric understands that he is indeed a sinner; he is not a good person. Or rather he is a mix, in his words: "Perhaps, since nothing human's not a broth of false and true, it was the two at once."

Like The Moviegoer and Till We Have Faces, this is one of the books I’ve read at least 12 times as an adult. All three were on my annual reread list for years. I rotated them out after 2017, and returned to them over the past couple of weeks to see how they hold up after a nearly 3 year break. All three hold up well, but this is likely my favorite of the group and the most likely to get back into the yearly rotation.

All of Buechner’s work carries that tension between the holy and the profane and between doubt and faith. As much or more than any other believing author I’ve read Buechner treats doubt as the serious subject it is and presents it as inescapable even as he himself is a genuine believer. I don’t share the faith any more, and Walker Percy (who wrote The Moviegoer) he is a writer that worked in the reverse for me than he apparently did for others; he is often cited as a gateway into the faith, but he was one of my gateways out. Still I appreciate that a believer is so honest about the consistent presence of doubt. I also really appreciate his insistence that people are at least as bad as they are holy. That “snarl of false and true” is the human condition, which I think holds whether God exists or not. 

But all of those themes alone would not make me love the book. It is Godric’s voice. Buechner’s prose is never less than elegant in the dozen or so books I’ve read by him. Always funny. And Godric’s voice is the best expression of both his eloquence and his humor. And it is the best vehicle for his thematic concerns as well. It’s compelling all the way through. It’s moving without schmaltz. It earned the tears that came up on the last page as they did all previous eleven times. Another of the books that I thought of as automatically in when I conceived this blog as building a personal canon.


Rereads and Everything Else 2020 26/35

Readathon 4/4

Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis

The strongest argument for God in the face of evil is that from Job, and I honestly don’t find it compelling. That argument as I understand it, God’s response to complaints about evil and injustice in the world is simply, “I’m God and I’m so far beyond your comprehension that to question me is silly, like a flea questioning the motives of the herd of buffalo that tramples it.” That argument was convincing to me once, and honestly I think the greatest expression of it I’ve encountered is presented in the second part of Till We Have Faces. But I’ve come to wonder how that argument to justify human suffering is substantively different from the madness inspiring Old Ones of the Cthulhu mythos. It just doesn’t square with the idea of a loving god. But despite ideological drift and no longer finding the central argument Till We Have Faces presents convincing, I love this book. If I were ever to be swung around on that, this would be the book to do it.

The novel takes the form of the retelling of the myth of Psyche from the perspective of one of Psyche's sisters, Orual, who is presented as a Queen in a small (fictional) realm that shares the world with the Ancient Greeks. It is written as her complaint against the gods. Why did they bring Psyche into the world only to be sacrificed to them? Why are they so cruel to Orual herself? The first part lays out the story, and in the second half she is answered, to her satisfaction, by a variation of the Job argument: “I ended my first book with the words 'no answer.' I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.”

This is at least my 12th time reading the novel, and someone might reasonably ask, why, if you don’t find the Job argument convincing would you keep reading the book over and over?  There are several answers to that question. One is that I find her complaint against the gods pretty convincing. Lewis, in the 20 or so books I’ve read by him, was only this raw and questioning in A Grief Observed, the published form of the notebooks he kept after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, who is reported to be a heavy influence on the writing of Till We Have Faces. Another is that despite not being convinced by the argument about the gods, in talking about them Lewis is incredibly effective at evoking the awe that science fiction, fantasy and mythic stories are touted for, a sensation akin to worship. Another is that it is very smart about the way that religious people and irreligious people (represented in part by the priest of Ungit (Aphrodite) and Orual’s teacher The Fox, who aside from being a well drawn character represents Greek philosophy) in many cases do not understand each other on a fundamental level. Another is that it is incredibly written; for my money it’s far and away the best thing that I’ve read by Lewis. 

But the thing that pulls me to the book more than anything else is that it is profound about the difference between self and self perception. About self deception. Like the ants sorting seeds in Psyche’s task, Orual’s sorting out her own motives “was a labor of sifting and sorting, separating motive from motive and both from pretext." The first part of the story is Orual telling her story, and like so many people making things about herself when they are not. In the second section she goes back over the story with the perspective she’s gained from her first attempt at it. It’s the difference between being good and appearing good. “Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, "Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that is the whole art and joy of words." A glib saying. When the time comes at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words." Lewis takes this on to the previous statement about the god of the mountain himself being the answer to the questions. 

While I can’t follow Lewis that far, I find the book absolutely compelling as a story and as an invitation to self examination. I like that Lewis lets himself doubt here. The fact that he wrote a narrator who is a (relatively) believable woman may owe to his marriage to Davidman. There is speculation that she, not Lewis, wrote the book. I don't buy that, but I’m certain she had a lot of input. Like Godric and The Moviegoer, this was once an annual reread to which I returned after not reading it since 2017. Like those, despite my ideological drift, I still love the book and it is firmly in my canon.

Rereads and Everything Else 2020 25/35

Readathon 3/3

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Back in 2018, a science fiction/fantasy book discussion podcast I listened to recommended Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties highly, in tones that put her on the same plane as Kelly Link or George Saunders. And that high praise was earned; while I may prefer those other two, Machado is playing on the same field and even the stories that didn’t immediately work for me won me over by their endings. But the standout of the bunch, for me, was Especially Heinous in which she took the episode titles for the entire run of Law and Order SVU and used them as titles for recap-like mini chapters that became a perfect horror story. That the story was written during the events depicted in this memoir and the disjointed narrative matched her then current experience only made me appreciate it more.

In The Dream House is as good as that excellent story collection. It’s a heartbreaking memoir about Machado’s relationship with an abusive ex, and also an examination of the way abuse in lesbian relationships is perceived and reported to the extent that it is at all. The silence of the historical record on this is not something I'd contemplated before. Machado talks about “the violence of the archive” or “archival silence” on queer relationships in general, and their having an abusive component in particular. That concept really shook me. The idea that whole groups of people are just left out of the record is something I knew, but this brought it home more powerfully. I think of someone like my favorite writer, Herman Melville. I would be very surprised if he considered himself queer in the sense that it’s used today, that is, building an identity around it. But I would be even more surprised, having read several of his books, if he hadn’t had a lot of sex with men, especially during his years at sea. I need to read a biography of him before I make claims about the record of his experiences, but it wouldn’t even be a conversation if he hadn’t once been a bestselling writer and a later work reclaimed as a classic long after his death. But what about people with similar experiences who didn’t write a late acknowledged masterpiece? Machado does an excellent job teasing out the implications of this both in terms of the violence done to people and the way denying this part of human nature is problematic in its own right. Machado’s case was one of emotional violence unaccompanied by physical violence and the archives, according to her research (very thorough by the looks of the suggested additional reading list) is particularly silent in such cases. And yet it must have happened. Machado’s account of her own experiences is convincing and harrowing.

 And oddly, given the heaviness of the themes, it's very funny in places. It’s absolutely compelling. Like her stories, it is structurally innovative. Each chapter is labled “Dream House as _____” which allows her to jump from the personal narrative to the broader conversation by means of various tropes and metaphors. There’s a running gimmick (used in the positive sense) in which her reactions to the abuse are compared to tropes from a specific book on folklore. The prose is consistently very good. All in all an excellent memoir and book. I think I like it even more than her stories.

Highly Recommended 

Library Books and Everything Else 2020 24/35

Readathon 2/4

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Black Helicopters by Caitlin Kiernan

Back in 2018 when I first read this I said “If you could somehow find the midpoint between Lovecraft, Joyce, Le Carre and Lewis Carroll you might be on similar ground but this is no pastiche. It's a tough read but so worth the effort.” That’s not a terrible summation. I thought this was a sequel to the first Kiernan book I read, Agents of Dreamland, but a version of this was written first and published as a chapbook, then she rewrote it after writing Dreamland. Like its prequel, it is told in a nonlinear style. As I said then it’s often a tough read. There’s a chapter in which the dialog is all in French. On my first pass, I googled every phrase and got the gist, only to find the chapter with translated dialog as an appendix. The book makes the reader work to figure out what is happening, but once it’s pieced together, it is genuinely horrifying.

A long lived woman named Ptolema, currently working for a government agency that investigates supernatural crises meets with some shifty members of a group that is involved in a less clearly stated way. She is in search of one of a set of twins, Bete, and the Psychiatrist who has been running an experiment on them. The other twin, Ivoire, is in New England, coerced into joining a fight against what appears to be the initial phases of the awakening of a Cthuhlu like creature and his minions. There are dips into the past and into the far future. There are literal and metaphorical chess games (I definitely thought about Nabokov at times while reading this). The Signalman, the main agent in the prequel, makes a cameo.

The horror is equal parts cosmic and psychological. The mood is both awe-evoking and oppressive. "Eris plays a mean game of chess,"  Kiernan says at one point. Eris is the Greek goddess of chaos and strife; chaos and uncertainty are the major themes here, and the source of much of the horror. In dialog: "I'm certain of that sir.’ ‘Ptolema, my dear, no one is ever ----ing certain of anything. In all the wide world, there is not a scintilla of certainty.’ And later translated from French: "Ma'am," says Babbitt, not daring to raise his head. You are certain you will obtain the desired results?".... "Babbitt,  I have never in all my life been certain. Which is the point." 

This is the kind of weird fiction that works best on me. Maybe my favorite of the Kiernan books I’ve read, and definitely my favorite of the ones I’ve read twice (though a third read of The Drowning Girl could change that). A literary horror novel/weird tale of the highest order.


Rereads and Everything Else 2020 23/25

Readathon 2/2

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

If there is a book that has had a stronger effect on me over the long term, that is that it introduced me to ideas that eventually led to a complete shift of world-view, I can’t think of one. That paradigm shift was not in the direction that Percy intended; his project, as far as I can divine it from having read all his books, most of them multiple times, is to use existentialism and semiotics in the context of often ironic stories to convince people to convert to Catholicism. That’s not entirely fair, he was a novelist first and it’s only in his last novel that the ideas completely overwhelmed the story (though, starting with Lancelot they started tending in that direction). His world in which it’s hard to figure out how to live as a person on a Tuesday afternoon now that everything has been explained satisfactorily by philosophy and science was my real introduction to existentialism (though I had read excerpts here and there previously), and eventually one of the stepping stones out of the Christian faith. 

"Everydayness is the enemy" was my aspirational and poorly adhered to mantra for years. Much of the novel deals with Binx Bolling’s, the narrator, search. The search is what everyone would do were they not "sunk in the everydayness of their own life." The theme that crisis or disaster situations can snap people out of that everydayness is one Percy returned to over and over again in his work. “To be aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair." By the ending of the book, Percy has hinted at solutions but ultimately claims the right to uncertainty, at least in what he’s willing to say: “As for my search,  I have not the inclination to say much on the subject. For one thing, I have not the authority to, as the great Danish philosopher declared, to speak of such matters in any way other than the edifying. For another thing, it is not even open to me even to be edifying, since the time is later than his, much too late edify or do much of anything except plant a foot in the right place as the opportunity presents itself-- if indeed asskicking is properly distinguished from edification." That quote gives a good feel for both the humor and the philosophical aims of the novel.

Binx, at the novel’s outset, is about to turn thirty. He spends his time making money in his uncle’s financial advisory company and dallying with his secretaries.This is where the existentialist themes get complicated. People’s actuality doesn’t always match their self perception. Some of Binx’s older family members “coincide with themselves,” but not his father, and not Binx. The way Percy addresses race in the book reads a little uncomfortably in the context of current discourse, but I think he is making a good faith effort to understand the way black and white people interact in the time he lives and in light of the history there. It seems logical to extend the uncertainty of self to people of radically different identity, but that conversation was not happening in those terms then. But he does try. I’m less comfortable with the way he writes his women characters. There’s a fratty aspect to the first quarter or so of the book that I was never entirely at home with. It’s like he brought the  Sartre and Camus to an American context, but not De Beauvoir. De Beauvoir is rightly remembered as a feminist, but her subject/object divide was conceived in existentialist terms and her work should be considered alongside theirs. There are several women in the book who do receive their due (Binx’s Aunt and Kate Cutrer (a distant cousin and love interest) in particular, and to a lesser extent his mother), but there’s something that doesn’t sit quite right with his interactions with his secretaries. I think the strengths of the novel overcome this, but if someone brought a strong feminist critique of this aspect of the book, that would be entirely fair. 

 The Moviegoer is smart about place, and how people find their ways in it. The idea that one could be a “somebody somewhere” versus an “anybody anywhere” took me a few reads to wrap my mind around. But one of the greatest strengths of the novel is the way it critiques an America already becoming a consumer wasteland. There are passages that rival the best of Vonnegut on the subject. Binx’s search is rooted in the history and context of New Orleans as a place. It matters very much where one is “catheterizing a pig” and who one is while doing so, in a particularly grotesque example. Percy is smart (writing in 1959!) about how a place is “certified” by its depiction in film or the presence of celebrity. An early sighting of William Holden gives Binx the opportunity to talk about how people’s experience was already being mediated to an unhealthy degree through its depiction in nascent pop culture. If Percy could only see Facebook.

The prose is excellent, often hilarious. Despite the nearly cynical humor, though, it often evokes a sense of wonder. Even having read it twelve times now, I’m sure I don’t get every bit of the philosophy in it. But the book is deeply ingrained in my mind, hopefully in good ways. My favorite theme in all literature is uncertainty, and this novel, along with the films of the Coen Brothers, may have been the initial source of that. When I conceived of this blog as recording my personal canon, this was one of the books that was already solidly in. I would no longer claim it to be without defect, but I love it warts and all. 


Rereads and Everything Else 2020 22/35

Monday, October 19, 2020

Middlemarch by George Eliot 2020 Reread

 2020 Reread:

I’m pasting my review from last year from my first readthrough of Middlemarch below. I stand by what I said then. Now that I’ve reread it, I’m more than happy to claim it as a favorite and make it canon. On this reread a couple things really stood out. 

Eliot is so smart about how people never choose to end up in a bad place. There are a million small compromises. Here are a couple of examples: "There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind." and then again: "...and it seemed to him as if he were beholding in a magic panorama a future where he himself was sliding into that pleasureless yielding to the small solicitations of circumstance, which is a commoner history of perdition than any single momentous bargain." 

Eliot is also very smart about class and the ethics of making money. It’s hard to map this content directly onto modern discourse, but she clearly understood that class was a major driver in people’s lives and that fortunes are often made off the backs and at the expense of others. You see characters wrestling with this throughout, and in the climax a character abandons a fortune and the dubious source of another’s fortune ruins a reputation. While it is difficult to make one to one comparisons with current thought, it does force the reader to contemplate class. I think Eliot is more effective at examining this than I remember Austen being. Parallel to the discussion of class is the idea that debt can drive a person’s life and it is best avoided.

Finally, coming back to the book a little over a year later, I was surprised at how different the characters were from my memory of them. And then I saw a masterclass in characterization as nearly all of them had a recognizable and believable arc. Again I was impressed at the dialog and at how funny it is. 


Annual Reread 3/8

Rereads And Everything Else 2020 21/35

2019 Review upon first reading it:

Middlemarch kept popping up in different places for me recently. A few people in an online book group I’m in praised it to no end. Then I read Jo Walton’s book on rereading. It was mostly about science fiction and fantasy novels, but she included this. Then I found out it was my sister’s favorite novel (I knew it was Eliot, but I thought it was Silas Marner). So finally I broke down and read it. I don’t claim a book as a favorite until I’ve read it at least twice, but I’d be shocked if this didn’t join my yearly reread list. It’s a masterpiece that deserves its reputation.

Walton said that Middlemarch proved that George Eliot could have invented science fiction. Having now read the book I take her meaning to be that Eliot gradually builds the reader’s understanding of the fictional town of Middlemarch bit by bit without clumsily placed details. You know what you need to know as you need to know it. Eventually the town lives in your mind, like Vandermeer’s Ambergris. While I would gladly read an Eliot scifi book, I’m hard pressed to think that she could improve on the world building here.

My sister said that Eliot understood people. I agree fully. In Middlemarch the gap between self and perception of self is rendered as well as anyone I’ve read outside of Nabokov. And she does it without the unreliable narrator device! She goes back and forth between omniscient and limited third person. Each person’s self deception is revealed, oftentimes to hilarious effect. But never cruelly. Eliot manges to be savage (and savagely funny) in her critique of human behavior, while still being kind and forgiving of her characters’ faults. This is an amazing trick to pull off. She never loses sight of human failure and deception. Yet she seems to really believe, in the words of Dorothea towards the end of the book, that “people are almost always better than their neighbors think they are.” This double vision seems the perfect antithesis to current online discourse wherein, to paraphrase Hitchens, when you see your opponent’s worst possible motive, you’re sure you found the only one.

Every page is quotable. The prose is consistent, as is her aforementioned understanding of people. She understood the futility of the prediction game long before Nassim Taleb: "Let him start for the continent then without our pronouncing on his future. Among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous." She understood people’s need to hear what they want to hear: "Dorothea's faith supplied all that Mr. Casaubon's words seemed to leave unsaid. What believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime." She understood the all too human impulse to be right all the time: "There was occasionally a little fierceness in his demeanor, but it was directed chiefly against false opinion, of which there is so much to correct in the world that a man of some reading and experience necessarily has his patience tried.” She understood the need to blame outside forces for our own faults: "No more was said: Dorothea was too much jarred to recover her temper and to behave so as to show that she admitted any error in herself. She was disposed rather to accuse the intolerable narrowness and the purblind conscience of the society around her." (This is not to say that she doesn’t understand the pressures that society places on the individual. She illustrates well people caught up by events they can’t control. This understanding extended to the effect of class on people’s lives.) She understood the complexities of human motivation: "Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers; but dressed in their small wardrobe of notions bring their provisions to a common table and mess together feeding out of the common store according to their appetite." Yet the book is no mere parade of aphorisms. It is a well knit whole rendered in perfect prose.

Eliot’s dialog is top-notch; hilarious and revealing. Consider this early exchange between Fred and Rosamond Vincy and their mother:

"...rather a prig, I think."

"I can never make out what you mean by a prig," said Rosumund.

"A fellow who wants to show that he has opinions."

"Why, my dear, doctors must have opinions," said Mrs. Vincy, "What are they there for else?"

"Yes, mother their opinions are paid for, but a prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions."

Later when Fred accuses them of slang:

"There is correct English, that is not slang"

"I beg your pardon, correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”

This is a great character introduction. It’s also hilarious. I was expecting a very good book, but not a book as funny as it is.

Middlemarch is an all around delight, the best book I’ve read for the first time this year (eclipsing The Goldfinch, Generation Loss and (to my surprise) even Wise Children). I will be returning to this often. I don’t make books canon until I’ve read them at least twice; I’m tempted to reread it immediately so that I can go ahead and make it official (though I’ll probably wait until next year).

Friday, October 16, 2020

Come Closer by Sara Gran

I read all six of Sara Gran’s novels in 2018. I sought her out after seeing her name on a list of writers who might succeed Elmore Leonard at the top of the crime genre. And her crime novels are, while not really being similar to Leonard’s, incredible. The standalone novel Dope is as mean a noir as can be imagined. And her Claire DeWitt books have become favorites, especially the first one, City of the Dead. But when I went to the bookstore to find her work before I read it, I found this, her horror novel, first. 

I love an unreliable narrator, and Amanda, an architect who is slowly being possessed by a demon is a great one. Then again she’s unreliable enough that the gradual part may be in doubt. She and her boyfriend begin hearing sounds in their remote loft. Soon she’s dreaming of a particularly creepy imaginary friend from childhood and behaving in increasingly hostile ways. But again, the unreliability; she was pretty hostile in the very first chapter. But Gran uses that unreliability to incredible effect creating tension for the reader as Amanda gradually loses her grip on reality. A very good and convincing thriller. Having read her crime fiction (and her excellent debut mainstream novel) the bleakness of this is recognizable. It’s more akin to Dope; that is, it is not cut with the zen existentialism of the Claire Dewitt books. It’s chilling. If I like the Dewitt books more, it’s no slam on this, but a testament to those.

Highly Recommended

Rereads And Everything Else 2020 20/35

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand

Earlier this year, halfway through Last Summer at Mars Hill, her first short story collection, I realized that Elizabeth Hand is my favorite living writer. Glimmering just confirmed that. It is her Dhalgren, her House of Leaves, her Palimpsest, her Dead Astronauts; her big sprawling novel that is as much an experience as an artifact. It is an elegy to the 20th Century in all its madness, to the victims of the AIDS epidemic and to civilization or even humankind both of which seem to be closing in on their demise in the book. It’s not a mainstream literary novel, nor is it exactly science fiction, fantasy or horror. It is a glorious mixture of those techniques and moods. It is apocalyptic in tone, as bleak in points as Cormac McCarthy, but like the way more recent Dead Astronauts or the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, it sees the cruel beauty of the ebbing of humanity’s tide (to paraphrase Jeffers) and it’s characters are capable of moments of joy. 

The book begins with a couple page rundown, news report style, of a weird confluence, in the late 1990’s, of an epochal methane explosion with the onset of persistent solar flares. The world is permanently changed. There is a worldwide cloud cover with an eerie nearly permanent northern lights like display, the titular glimmering. Electrical power is intermittent, as is phone service. Large corporations still operate, and life ekes along for everyone else. Jack Finegan, scion of a department store fortune that was already fading before the glimmering, and owner/editor of a minor New Yorker competitor has gone into full blown AIDS as the glimmering begins. Trip Marlowe is a young Xian (a group of christians who have co-opted the pagan name for their religion) singer who has risen to prominence just as the glimmering begins. His final song, an apocalyptic number, becomes a hit despite the lack of world infrastructure. Their lives intersect eventually, of course, but their story is the foreground to a world which has irrevocably changed and a civilization that is crumbling. Finegan’s friend Leonard Thrope, whose mori photography (pictures of the dead and dying) prefigure Hand’s noir character Cass Neary, is a bit of a trickster figure, a nihilist of sorts; a distant, postmodern, queer cousin to McCarthy’s Judge. I’ve heard some people describe this as cyberpunk or postcyberpunk, and it does have aspects of that mood, particularly in the fashions and visual palette of the piece. But it is no more dominant than the other genres at play. 

In his wanderings, Trip Marlowe ends up for a while in the Mars Hill Spiritualist community and meets a couple of characters who were in the title story of the collection Last Summer at Mars Hill. You could enjoy the novel without reading the story, but reading the shorter work first would deepen the significance of the actions of one character in particular.

It’s not going to be for everyone; Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review, and Kirkus called it depressing and pointless. The latter is unfair and missed the point. It is bleak in some ways, but is beautiful. Given the themes of societal and environmental collapse and epidemics of multiple diseases, there is a heaviness to the material. But given those givens, the book does not despair. It is a powerful work, among Hand’s best. I’m certain to return to it.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 77/75

Thursday, October 8, 2020

When The Women Come Out To Dance by Elmore Leonard

I think of Elmore Leonard primarily as a novelist with books like Gold Coast, The Switch, Tishomingo Blues and Cuba Libre among my favorites. But I was introduced to him by a short story, and I was immediately hooked. Leonard’s seemingly effortless cool, his pared down prose, and unerring ear for dialog fit the short form as well they do the longer. This is the second time I read this collection, later republished as Fire In the Hole when Justified, the pilot episode of which was based on the new title story. The whole thing is great, but the back half is loaded with great stories. 

Sparks- This could be an excellent one act play. An insurance fraud investigator interviews a woman whose house burned down in a fire. Highly Recommended.

Hanging Out At The Buena Vista- An elderly man courts an elderly woman in their retirement community. Highly Recommended.

Chickasaw Charlie Hoke- This was later absorbed into one of my favorite Leonard novels, Tishomingo Blues. The title character is a fast talker and former baseball player who talks his way into a hosting gig at the hotel that provides that novel’s setting. I might like this even more if I didn’t know how great the rest of the story around it is. Highly Recommended.

When The Women Come Out To Dance- A mail order bride with a secret helps an ex-stripper married to a rich man in a tough situation. Highly Recommended.

Fire in the Hole- The basis for the pilot of Justified. In the aftermath of the “justified” killing of a gangster at the end of the novel Pronto, Raylan Givens is sent to his home ground of Kentucky and runs into an old flame, an old friend (now his boss), and an old coal digging buddy (now a criminal). The latter, Boyd Crowder, became one of the all time great TV characters. It’s hard to separate this story from my love for the show, but I feel pretty confident that I love it. Canon Worthy.

Karen Makes Out- Out of Sight seems to be the consensus choice for best Leonard adaptation, and I certainly agree. Karen Sisco, one of the main characters of that novel, is the main character here. While it’s technically a prequel, it feels like a dry run for that novel. I think it’s just as entertaining. Canon Worthy.

Hurrah for Captain Early- My favorite Leonard short story (with the possible exception of How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl and Became a Famous Oklahoma Lawman, later absorbed into The Hot Kid, the first thing I ever read by him). In 1898 Bo Catlett, a black veteran of the Spanish American War visits a small fictional Arizona town called Sweetmary where Captain Early, a “hero” of the battle of San Juan Hill is early awaited. Catlett knows that Early was no hero, nor were TR and the rough riders. Rather they were well intentioned people in way over their heads. Catlett is refused entry to the hotel and when he goes to a bar runs afoul of some people who are not happy with the way he punctures the myth of San Juan Hill. It plays out perfectly. Canon.

The Tonto Woman- Ruben Vega, a Mexican outlaw runs into Sarah Isham, the wife of a local baron who lives in complete isolation. She was kidnapped by Native Americans who gave her face a distinctive tattoo, and her husband is ashamed of her. I don’t want to spoil where it goes from there. Canon Worthy.

Tenkiller- The protagonist of this story is the grandson Virgil Webster from Cuba Libre and the son of Carl Webster from The Hot Kid and Up In Honey’s Room. He is a former rodeo rider and a stuntman in Hollywood. When his girlfriend, a stuntwoman, dies in an accident, he goes home to his family pecan farm only to find that some criminals have leased the place and let it nearly go to rot. I love the way this one ends. Canon.

Overall Collection: Canon Worthy

Rereads And Everything Else 19/35

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Extremism by JM Berger

Extremism by JM Berger is part of the MIT Essential Knowledge series of short books hitting on critical issues and technologies. These books give definitions and give a brief overview of a topic. It’s similar to the Very Short Introduction series. This is the first of the series I have read, though I plan to read more.

This particular volume couldn’t be more timely. Berger talks about online extremism in his chapter on radicalization, but it is not a major focus of the book. Still, in a world in which extremist rhetoric is amplified and algorithm-ized, the insights in the book are all the more vital.

He defines Extremism as referring “to the belief that an in-group’s success or survival can never be separated from the need for hostile action towards an out-group” and that it can be “the province of state or non-state actors” the latter of which distinguishes it from terrorism. The hostile action is not necessarily physically violent, though it certainly can be. It can be verbal harassment or discrimination.

Extremism is not a new phenomenon, and Berger goes into historical instances. And he does not pretend that extremism is a phenomenon common to only one group. Any ideology can spawn extremists. Overall an excellent overview of the subject, and a sobering read.

Highly Recommended

Library Books and Everything Else 2020 17/35

Wintering Out by Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney is well on his way to becoming my favorite poet. I first read him (aside from the odd poem here and there) this year, and this is the second collection I’ve read, after Station Island. This is on par, or just a little behind that one in my estimation. A couple more this good and he's there.

The atmosphere of Heaney’s poems is just a couple degrees off of the best nature or horror writing (at least as I’ve experienced them). There is a constant mist and the sense that the past lives in the peat bogs and will likely crawl out of the ground and possibly harm you. But there is wonder there as well. And the sense that the Irish troubles of the late 20th century are happening just outside of the scenes he depicts. While Heaney is no stickler for form, there is a music to his language that really works for me.

Standouts include Bog Oak, the five poem cycle Northern Hoard (especially the fifth poem, Tinder), Cairn Maker, Augery, Wedding Day, Summer Home, Maighdean Mara and Limbo. There were only a few that didn’t work for me, and I should probably reread those to make sure. All in all another magnificent collection which I will be returning to often.

Canon Worthy
Library Books And Everything Else 2020 18/35

Monday, September 28, 2020

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin Kiernan

 Back in 2018 I heard this novella recommended on The Coode Street Podcast as a good exemplar of the wave of contemporary takes on Lovecraftian horror. This was the first thing I read by Kiernan who has since become a favorite (I’ve read seven more). At the time I described it as a “good novella in the vein of Lovecraft with nods to Le Carre style espionage, Vonnegut, and Winnie the Pooh. Parts reminded me of Vandermeer (though anything with dangerous fungus reminds me of Vandermeer).” That’s not a bad short summary. I would make the Le Carre and Vandermeer links more strongly on this reread.

As I read more of Kiernan’s work I would become very aware that she was serious when she said that Ulysses should have freed writers from the tyranny of plot (paraphrase). She is much more concerned with language and with mood. That is not to say that she is not able to structure a book well. The story begins a little over a week after an aging cold warrior known as the Signalman who works for a spy agency that deals with the strange, the alien, the uncanny, and his colleagues invaded the compound of a cult that was equal parts David Koresh, Cthulhu and UFO. What they see there traumatizes them. He is in a diner waiting fearfully for an operative from England’s version of his agency. The narrative moves forward and back from the limited third person point of view of the Signalman or that of his opposite number, the first person narration of one of the cult members who seems to be losing her sense of self in the cult and the revelation it promises, and a weird omniscient narrator. The world that emerges is one which has had close shaves with destruction over the years and a sense of future doom. Over the whole thing wafts the scent of fungal spores.

I loved this. It makes the reader work a little, but the world  it introduces seems too small for the relatively short word count. I picked this up again for a book club, and I’m glad I did. Since I last read this, I am far more familiar with Kiernan’s style and concerns and with Lovecraft, a major influence on nearly all her work. I did enjoy it more this time, but I still think this makes an excellent introduction to her work. I need to reread the longer sequel Black Helicopters as she has a third volume in the series coming out soon.

Canon Worthy

Rereads and Everything Else 2020 16/35