Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Several years ago, I struck up a conversation with a guy selling books at the excellent Letters Bookshop in Durham, NC, and after talking, he highly recommended this short novel and I bought a copy. I put it on the “read soon” shelf in the living room well over a year ago and had mostly forgotten it. Recently, though, in the midst of an online conversation about the controversy surrounding American Dirt (which I haven’t read), I saw at least two people recommending reading this book instead. I am glad that I was reminded that I had a copy, as it is an astounding book.

Makina is a telephone operator in Mexico (neither Mexico or the US is mentioned by name in the book). In addition to her work duties, she also occasionally carries messages or packages for local gangsters. The novel (novella?) is the story of her trip into the States to find her brother, who went some years earlier, and deliver a package while she’s going. Given the borderlands setting (and the relative lack of punctuation), the easy comparison would be Cormac McCarthy. Lisa Dillman, the translator, does cite him in her afterward as an influence on the way she did her work.* She mentioned The Road, and I thought about The Crossing a couple times while reading this. I couldn’t speak to Herrera’s relation to McCarthy, but it is covering a lot of the same territory. While that comparison is an apt one, it would do a disservice to Herrera to lean into it too heavily.

First there’s the language: “They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link. More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born.” If I read the afterward correctly, the language was similarly rendered in Spanish. That intermediary tongue is rendered in a deliberately region free English that is a pleasure to read. Herrera apparently coined words to use in the original, and Dillman repurposes words here to achieve the same effect. That effect is poetic without being overly showy and mythic.

Border crossing is a fraught topic. The book might come as a shock to Anglos who hadn’t previously considered the possibility that people coming in from Mexico might have a high level of ambivalence about the whole enterprise themselves. What is given up in such a trip? Why go to a place where abuse will be heaped upon them? One reading of the book (maybe the intended reading?) is to frame journey into America as a descent into hell. Herrera’s vision is not as bleak as McCarthy’s, but an encounter with a cop late in the book really brings it close. And I’m still trying to figure out how much hope is intended in the ending. It’s not always a compliment to say a book would make a great movie, but in this case it is. I would love to see an adaptation of this in the right hands.

I will definitely be rereading this. Canon Worthy.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 10/75

*Dillman’s afterward is in itself fantastic reading.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Wit's End by Karen Joy Fowler

Like the two other books by Karen Joy Fowler I’ve read, Wit’s End is a delight. It is a mystery, but, like those others, it comments on its genre while being an excellent example of it. It also functions as a very early cautionary tale of trying to control your narrative, either fictional characters or the perception of your own actions, particularly in the age of the internet, which was just taking its shape when Wit’s End was published in 2008. It very subtly comments on its own structure. It pays everything off like a proper mystery. It’s a moving portrait of people dealing with grief. It’s also very funny.

Rima Lansill, 29, is grieving the death of her entire immediate family. To get away from things, she goes to live for a time with her godmother, the famous mystery author Addison Early. Early is an estranged friend of Rima’s late father, a famous journalist and columnist. In order to write her mysteries, Early creates miniature dollhouses laying out the crime scenes in great detail, and then spins the story out of those. Early is also very concerned with controlling the narrative about her most famous character, Maxwell Lane, going so far as to get into wikipedia editing wars with fans. Rima’s father was written as a character, the murderer, in one of Early’s books, and both Rima and Early are extremely uncomfortable with the fanfiction that springs up around that. Even in the age of Myspace and when blogs were what podcasts are now, there is a real sense of the futility of trying to maintain any sense of the truth in the barrage of conflicting information spoken in certainty. There is a stalker, and a cult, and no immediately obvious murder. And yet there is narrative tension as Rima gets to know her godmother and the people around her and tries to figure out what exactly happened between Early and her father. All of the characters are working through some kind of grief. There’s even a touch of contemporary/near future science fiction towards the end. And again, it’s a very funny book.

Fowler can apparently write compelling works in any genre. The Jane Austen Book Club is excellent women’s commercial fiction. This is a very good mystery. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is great literary scifi, or at least great fiction about science (and is overdue a reread). All have well drawn characters, good prose, great structure and great wit. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 9/75.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Mythologies by WB Yeats

Depending on the day you ask me, Yeats may be my favorite poet.* I dip into the Collected Poems often, but I had not previously read any of his prose work. I picked up a copy of this omnibus of stories at a Wake County Library book sale a couple years ago. Mythologies contains the collections The Celtic Twilight, The Secret Rose, Stories of Red Hanrihan and the “essays” Rosa Alchemica, Tables of the Law, The Adoration of the Magi, and Per Amica Silentia Lunae. These all in some way relate back to Irish folklore, and, if the documentary about Yeats I saw recently** had a lot to do with his trying to establish a national myth for Ireland. I’m uncomfortable with nationalism as a movement, and there were hints here and there in the books of how that could turn sour, but that did not ruin the experience of the book. Throughout all the works collected here there is a real sense of the cultural battle between protestantism and catholicism with a pre-christian Irish paganism trying to reassert itself. This makes for some very effective and eerie tales, and is probably a symptom of Yeats’s attempt to give Ireland an identity that did not rest merely on the struggle between christianities.

Given that he won the Nobel, I was not surprised how good the writing is. Given its title, I should not have been as surprised as I was at how much some of it overlaps with the literary horror/fantasy genre that I’ve become enamored with over the past decade or so. Since this is an omnibus, and my reactions to the various collections range from mild recommendation to wildly enthusiastic, I will talk about each section separately. Since all the works in the omnibus are in the public domain, I include links to the Project Gutenberg ebooks of each.

The Celtic Twilight:

In this collection, in short chapters, Yeats writes about going around Ireland and collecting any information he can get about the Sidhe, or fairies or any other Irish folklore. This is honestly my least favorite of the bunch (possibly excepting the final section), and its placement at the beginning of the omnibus may be a prime factor in my having not finished the collection before despite having started it at least three times before. Still, there were moments when Yeats caught me with a phrase, or an image, or the tale he was relating which really moved me. I’m glad I pushed through.


The Secret Rose:

In this collection there is a shift away from the framing device of people telling Yeats folklore stories and more firmly into the short fiction mode. And it is here that the struggle between catholicism, protestantism and a resurgent paganism really starts to come into focus. And some of these stories should be classics of the horror genre. The standouts, to me were the opener, The Crucifixion of the Outcast, in which a wandering bard runs afoul of murderous monks, and The Curse of the Fire and Shadows in which some puritan murderers fall afoul of ancient spirits.

Highly Recommended

Stories of Red Hanrihan:

Red Hanrihan is a character who appears in Yeats’ poetry, and in this collection he gets a proper introduction. He is a bard travelling around Ireland making a living singing and telling tales. I really loved this collection with the exception of the third story. Highlights include the first story, called Red Hanrahan, in which Hanrihan meets some spirits and receives his gift and loses a lot and Hanrihan’s Vision which is like a better version of Lovecraft’s dreamquest stories.

Highly Recommended.

Rosa Alchemica:

This was amazing! Having read so much Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction over the past few years this was exactly in my wheelhouse. It’s described as an essay in the physical book I have, but it really reads like a literary horror story. In it Yeats, at the urging of Michael Robartes is very nearly inducted into the Society of the Alchemical Rose. Imagine if Lovecraft wasn’t a materialist; if the Old Gods were not ancient aliens, but were all the actual old gods trying to return. This is deeply disturbing and moving.

Canon Worthy

Tables of the Law and the Adoration of the Magi:

These stories, also classified as essays, by the book delve into similar territory to Rosa Alchemica, and are nearly as good as that story.

Canon Worthy

Per Amica Silentia Lunae:

This fits the essay designation a little better, and feels out of place in the collection.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 8/75

*On the other days it is WH Auden, Robinson Jeffers or Anne Porter. Most often Auden.

** A Fanatic Heart: Bob Geldof on WB Yeats (very good if a little hagiographic, available on Amazon Prime)

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer

Jeff Vandermeer has been a favorite author since I first read City of Saints and Madmen in 2010. That and its sequel Shriek: An Afterward are two of my favorite of all novels. The latter is the weird fiction answer to Pale Fire, which is very high praise. These are masterful mosaic novels. The Southern Reach novels were more straightforward narratively taken one by one, but each took a different approach to the situation and formed a mosaic of a different sort. (The movie based on the first of those, Annihilation is one of my favorites of recent years.) Vandermeer described Borne, to which Dead Astronauts is a companion novel (though both stand on their own as well), as “a Checkov play in the foreground with a Godzilla vs a giant bear in the background” (paraphrase). That’s an apt description. Anyone who read that novel would recognize the image in the title Dead Astronauts. Over these more recent novels Vandermeer’s obsession with environmental collapse have become more obvious. And yet as I read this, the things that came most to mind were not his previous novels, but Swamp Thing and the poetry of Robinson Jeffers.

Dead Astronauts is a difficult novel to parse, and I found my way into it by thinking of it as a surrealist literary horror restatement of these lines from Jeffers’ Carmel Point:
“Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve."
Science fiction often posits that humanity’s destiny is in the stars as Earth becomes uninhabitable. Jeffers would have it, and Vandermeer seems to agree, that humanity is more likely to go extinct. This is a bleak point of view, but both Jeffer’s poetry and Vandermeer’s novel make it seem natural, and a source, if not of comfort, of understanding. Jeffers goes on to say that “we must unhumanize ourselves a little,” and the novel does that both in the narrative and in the prose style .

In Borne the reader was introduced to the remnants of a Biotech company that existed near a ruined town, now cranking out monsters. In Dead Astronauts the story, if it can be called that, begins with Grayson, an astronaut who has returned to earth, Chen, who used to be human, and Moss, who is a sentient being who can shapeshift, and is at least partly formed from the plant from which she gets her name (hence the Swamp Thing vibes). They are the titular astronauts who were laid out in a crossroads in the previous novel. In this book, the reader learns that the Biotech company’s reach extends into many dimensions, and the three move through those dimensions trying to destroy the company and fighting or merging with other versions of themselves. This is the first third of the book. After that, the book shifts to others and gradually it becomes clear that this is the end, not of the world, but of humanity. Various creatures, a blue fox, a giant mutant fish, the mad scientist who is himself the victim of both the company and a cruel father take center stage.

That synopsis, though, does disservice to how deeply weird the book is. Often the prose is formatted like a poem and there is a hypnotic quality to the whole thing. The narrative is not straightforward at all. Given the theme of humanity’s dissolution, narrative dissolution is appropriate. Vandermeer’s world is angrier than Jeffers; it’s as if the world is taking revenge on humanity. This is very much about how much the environment is damaged by uncontrolled capitalism. Still the book is not without hope. It is a surreal science fiction horror story or Weird Tale told as an extended prose poem.

This is the second book I’ve read this year (the first being Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey) that I’m certain that I didn’t fully understand, but that I enjoyed and got enough out of it to know that I’d be reading them again, probably next year; my initial reaction is that they are both masterpieces. I’d put this only behind the Ambergris books as my favorite Vandermeer work. That said, if a lack of straightforward narrative puts you off of a book, you should probably pass. But for me, Canon-Worthy.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 7/75

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore

After the novel Middlemarch and the various books by Elizabeth Hand I read last year, Jill Lepore was my favorite discovery of 2019. I read three of her books (the best of which was The Story of America: Essays on Origins). Her work really challenged me to look more closely at the works cited sections of biographies. I’m not the first person to develop a love of biographies in my thirties (which has waned somewhat in the past couple of years, but not gone away), but Lepore changed the way I approach new ones and the way I remember some of the ones I’ve read over the last few years. I loved Chernow’s Washington when I first read it. It is too thorough to be bad, but Lepore points out how scant the documentary evidence is about Washington’s emotional state and his relationship to his mother, and how Chernow is apt to make stronger statements on Washington’s on those matters than can be strictly proven. Across the three books I read, she seems to have set herself the dual task of reclaiming narrative/popular history for academics, and to convince academics that in the absence of a national narrative created by qualified historians that history is too susceptible to current political needs. In this, she holds herself to the rigor she expect from others, but is distracted from those main thrusts of her work by an intriguing figure, Joe Gould.

I had never heard of Gould before picking up the book, but it’s easy to see how Lepore found him fascinating. A friend of many famous people in New York in the first half of the century (ee cummings and Ezra Pound among others), he came to fame, but not fortune, as an eccentric bohemian figure and the author of “The Oral History of Our Times” which was purported to have taken the space of more than fifty notebooks, filled with things he’d overheard and conversations he’d had. He was the first to use the term oral history. He was also clearly suffering from some form of mental illness. He was the subject of a New Yorker profile that made him and his handwritten opus famous. Another, years after he died by the same author, claimed that the author no longer believed the Oral History existed. In those, Gould seemed to be a pitiable bohemian figure, a legend. And on some level he was. Lepore archive dives around the country trying to establish whether the book ever existed or not (spoiler alert*). As she did, she uncovered a darker side to Gould’s life. He was obsessed with race; for both good and ill. He seemed to be on the side of civil rights, participating in protests. But there is a clear streak of antisemitism, and eugenic thinking as well. And then there was his obsession with Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage. In his pursuit of her he was relentless in the worst ways as she consistently rebuffed him.

Gould spent much of his life indigent, and the last years in a series of psychiatric hospitals. Lepore tells his story with equal parts verve, documentary evidence supplemented by reasonable suppositions (clearly marked as such), a sympathy for his mental illness, and a lack of sugar coating of his worst qualities. This was a highly entertaining and informative book.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 6/75

*At least some volumes of it did.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette has become one of my go-tos when people ask for a comic novel recommendation. Semple’s background as a writer for comedy shows really shone in the joke writing. I also loved the structure of the book; a daughter searching for documentary evidence of what happened to her mother. I think comic novels are often easy to write off as fluff, but the novel was very smart about relationships and loneliness. And of course it was hilarious. It skewered the lack of self awareness of wealthy Seattle. I picked up a copy of Today Will Be Different around the time I read Bernadette a couple years ago, but hesitated to read it; how could anything follow up that book? While it has a much more linear straightforward structure, it is actually as well done as the previous book. The more I think about it the more I like it.

The balancing act Semple does here is impressive. The protagonist, Eleanor Flood, a successful animator in NYC who has moved with her husband to Seattle, narrates and while her unreliability doesn’t hide something as sinister as say Lolita or What Was She Thinking (Notes on a Scandal), it is expertly played. She begins by saying that today she will be her best self, and actually ends with the same sentiment, but the shift in meaning between bookends is stark. Like Where’d You Go Bernadette, this contains some very sharp satire of self satisfied wealthy people and real understanding of their lack of self awareness. What is so impressive about this aspect of the book is that Eleanor’s lack of self-awareness is masked as self awareness. The bood trades expertly in screwball comedy tropes, but its characterization is subtle. Near the beginning, Eleanor’s voice seems the literary equivalent of the “can I talk to the manager haircut” memes. Her interactions with people are condescending in ways the narrator doesn’t seem to understand. Despite her statements that she is flawed, she seems to recognize the wrong ones. It doesn’t take long for the book to complicate that, though, as an undercurrent of sadness creeps in, obviously related to her sister. By the time that strand of the story plays out, and her privilege has butted up against an even greater and more frustrating one, she becomes more than just a clueless privilege monster, though she certainly has those tendencies. Through the narration and the screwball, at times slapstick, antics she has real moments of self realization and by the time she gets around to saying the titular line a second time she is a different person.

I don’t want to give the impression that the book is heavy handed about that. The light touch with which Semple handles this makes it even more impressive. The book is incredibly funny. Tightly plotted with jokes that almost all land. Her time in writer’s rooms on sitcoms (most notably (for me anyway) Arrested Development) really shows, both in the expert joke construction and in the dynamics of the writer’s room of the animated show Eleanor worked on that forms one of the novel’s settings.

My tastes most often run to the bleak, but I do have a real appreciation and love for works like this with a lighter tone, especially when executed this well. Today Will Be Different should not be dismissed on the basis of its genre or perceived slightness. It is very good indeed. I’m teetering between Highly Recommended and Canon-Worthy. I will almost certainly read it again.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 5/75

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

I love mosaic books that make the reader piece together what happened by telling related stories from various perspectives. The Fifth Head of Cerberus, 2666, City of Saints and Madmen, and Wylding Hall are probably my favorites that use that device. The first David Mitchell book I read, Cloud Atlas, belongs in that conversation. I’ve since read Mitchell’s books that were published after that, and really loved all of them, especially The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. I’m sometimes hesitant to read the early work of writers who I discovered through later books, and thus had put off reading Mitchell’s first two novels with the thought that it might disappoint. In the case of Ghostwritten, Mitchell’s first, the fear was fully unwarranted. I need to reread Atlas and De Zoet so that I can avoid recency bias, but I like this fully as well as anything else by him, and possibly those. While each novella in Ghostwritten is told all at once rather than split as in Cloud Atlas, and thus stand on their own more, taken together they add up to an elegant and forceful meditation on chance. 

Each novella is named for the location in which its main action takes place. The first, Okinawa, is the story of a man hiding on one of the smaller islands after committing an act of religious terrorism. The world will be ending around the turn of the century according to this faith, and he and some of his colleagues have killed people in the Tokyo subway before his retreat. The second, Tokyo, concerns a record store clerk who falls in love with a woman visiting from China. In the third, Hong Kong, a crooked western lawyer with secrets to hide breaks up with his girlfriend and begins a relationship with his maid. In Holy Mountain (Mount Emei in China) a woman grows up, after a traumatic childhood, and runs her family’s tea shop. Her life spans from the Japanese invasion through the Cultural Revolution and into the period with more capitalist leanings and is further damaged by each. This one starts to verge into fantasy/magical realism. This genre shift continues in Mongolia, which is narrated by a being that nests in the mind of various people and is in search of its origins. The genre changes again in Petersburg (Russia) which centers around a museum heist. In London, a ghostwriter (who works for Tim Cavendish a publisher with a larger role in Cloud Atlas) thinks about chance as he goes through a harrowing night of gambling. In Clear Island (in Ireland) a scientist who is developing a sentient AI but fears its use in warfare is dodging the US government. Night Train, named for an overnight radio chat show in New York, consists of the transcripts of that show as the host talks once a year to an AI who has inordinate power.

Mitchell is a master at writing in a wide array of voices. Each narrator’s is distinct, each is compelling. The ways in which these narrators show up in various ways in the other novellas join together to reinforce the central argument of the book; whether life is dictated by chance or fate. It appears to the characters as if they are ruled by chance, but they are in a narrative that is finished and thus fated to act the way they do. The central metaphor of the book is that people’s lives are ghostwritten, though whether the anonymous writer is chance or fate is never really stated. The actions of the characters impinge on each other in ways that seem almost random, but again they’re orchestrated by the writer. If I’m reading it correctly, Mitchell argues that life is determined, but one should act as if it’s governed by chance. That could be spun as bleak, but in Mitchell’s hands it seems humanistic and hopeful.

Obviously, I love the structure of the book. The writing is consistently excellent, and the book moves at an exciting pace. The stories can be enjoyed singly, but the enjoyment of piecing together the larger narrative is at least as great. The array of genres and voices on display is impressive; it is hard to believe this is a first novel.

Canon worthy.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey

I picked up a copy of Black Wine at one of the Wake County Library book sales a couple or three years ago, almost certainly because of the Ursula K. Le Guin blurb that said it was “as brilliant as William Gibson, as complex as Gene Wolfe.” That is high praise, especially coming from Le Guin. Then last year, I read What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton, a collection of essays about books she was rereading, she said that she was surprised this wasn’t a well regarded classic that nearly everyone had read rather than being out of print, it has since been republished as an ebook. I can see what both of them meant. It is a book that is eminently enjoyable on the first read, and I understood a lot of it. But, unless I miss my guess, it will yield more on future rereads. And it certainly deserves a much wider audience.

The book is hard to categorize; I’ll say literary fantasy novel, though there is enough technology that it could be a far future sci-fi novel set after societies have collapsed and new ones have risen to replace them. Regardless of genre, though, it is masterful. It’s set in a world that seems to have some kind of magic, but also smatterings of technology on a par with what we have now. There are at least four distinct societies, and the the story begins with a woman who is amnesiac and a slave who befriends a madwoman in a cage. The other two strands involve a woman searching for her mother and the story, some years previous, of the mother who is. by birth, the queen of the nastiest of the societies but has left it behind. I won’t spoil how the three strands of the story eventually come together, as piecing that together is part of the pleasure of reading the book. That pleasure is not unmitigated; it is brutal in its depiction of slavery, including sexual slavery. That can be difficult to read, but, I think, gives it more authority. It does a good job of not sinking into miserablism, though. There is joy as well, but tempered by an understanding of the darker end of experience.

The prose is excellent, and that is part of the point of the book. There are many languages discussed (all rendered in English). The book seems to come down on the side of linguistic relativism, that is, that the actual words a  person uses influences the types of thoughts they can have. There is one culture that doesn’t have a word for rape, for example and people had a difficult time understanding the concept. When I next read this, I’m going to pay particular attention to those societies and how the people talk.

The book is also anti-utopian without being dystopian, which is a neat trick. It doesn’t allow any of its cultures to be a utopia, and even when the most despicable of these is overturned in a revolution, the revolutionaries begin to be corrupted by power in quick order. There is a sense in which Dorsey seems to argue that art is more important than politics; that language is more likely to change people than politics. This brings me to a quandry. I’ve always been skeptical of what, to my perception at least, seems to be the consensus view: all art is political. To some extent that’s necessarily true, but I think that leads to reductive interpretations of works of art and creates unnecessary conflict. So I like her argument that art may be more important. But I’ve also been skeptical of the idea that policing language will ultimately change anyone’s mind; I think it will tend to make people double down on ideology, even if they cloak it in different language. But if language influences thought, then there is a sense in which changing language may actually influence people’s thinking. Whether that can be forced is an interesting question. I’m sure I missed a lot on my first reading of the novel, so I’m not certain that I agree with the arguments she’s making, or indeed if these are the arguments she’s making. I will be thinking about this one for weeks.

Black Wine is a complex novel that I will be revisiting often. There is a lot to process in terms of its philosophical content, but it is not as boring as that might imply. The story moves along quickly. It’s beautiful, brutal and compelling.

Canon worthy

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith

Ripley’s Game is the eighth Patricia Highsmith novel I’ve read, and it really unlocked a lot of the others for me. I love fiction that explores the seedier and darker corners of human behavior. Highsmith is as good as anyone at exploring those corners. Her sociopathic characters are second to none. David Kelsey, Charles Bruno, and, of course, Tom Ripley are indelible in their lack of concern for people around them. It’s easy to see her books as a middle finger to phony moralism of the 20th Century West. Her seeming contempt for the other characters bothers me though. They mostly seem somewhere on the spectrum of oblivious to actively stupid. I understood the criticisms of society, but I often wondered how much she saw stupidity and utter evil as the only options for people. Put another way, how nihilistic was she? She seemed very aware that society contained evil, but what about the individual? Where are readers supposed to situate themselves in the book?

In Ripley’s Game, the third in the series, Tom Ripley, almost on a lark involves an innocent man in his criminal activities. Reeves, a minor character in the previous book, wants to move from fencing stolen goods and smuggling to a higher level of crime. He’s been hired by an off-stage person to create a war between different mafia families. He attempts to enlist Ripley to do the killing that will set that war off, or suggest someone who can. Jonathan Trevanny slighted Tom at a party due to the rumors of murder that surround him. Because Trevanny had a form of leukemia, Ripley suggests him to Reeves. Then he very subtly convinces Trevanny that he is dying sooner than he thought and as a result has nothing to lose. Trevanny is drawn into a world to which he is very ill suited.

What this book does more clearly than the others I’ve read, is to deliberately implicate the reader. Jonathan Trevanny is the first of her main characters that I’ve come across that, at the start of the book at lease, is both innocent and not an idiot. He considers himself a moral person, and, while he was manipulated by Ripley, he realizes it, and makes a choice. Because there’s a character with whom the reader can more readily identify who murders someone, Highsmith more directly says to the reader, “You have this in you.” That choice also places the novel closer to existentialism than nihilism, which I appreciate.

  • And of course all of this is handled with Highsmith’s usual excellent prose, plotting and atmosphere. I think I like the Ripley books and A Suspension of Mercy best among her books I’ve read so far, and this might top the list.

Canon Worthy.

Owned but previously unread 2/75

Monday, January 6, 2020

Different Seasons by Stephen King

Different Seasons is a collection of four novellas, and Stephen King’s first (successful) attempt to demonstrate that he could write a wider range of work than just horror. In the afterward, you can tell he’s both a little chippy that he doesn’t get respect on the basis of the genre he was (and still is) most known for, and knows, for the most part, what his strengths are as a writer. Now, I think that horror can be every bit as affecting and effective than any of the more “literary” genres. That way of thinking seems to be working its way into more wide acceptance, not least by King’s being awarded the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003. Genre snobbery still exists, but the intervening 16 years have seen genre and mainstream merge to an even greater degree. And King deserved that award. Of the eight or so of his books I’ve read, I’ve only disliked one, and that is far outweighed by how well I liked the rest of them. I’d put Misery and Salem’s Lot at the top of the list of those, and I think this joins those.

The first novella is Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is the only one of these I’m absolutely sure I’ve read before; I think it was the first King I read. Of course, I saw the movie years before I read the book the first time, so I couldn’t read it without hearing Morgan Freeman’s voice and feeling the emotional heft of the movie (one of at least ten movies from 1994 that were more worthy of Best Picture that year than the not-terrible, but not even close to best movie of the year, Forrest Gump). Fortunately the movie is an incredibly faithful adaptation and the themes of freedom and avoiding institutionalization are straight from the book, as is the emotional heft of the piece. This is a fantastic story, and, even though I can’t know it, I think I would like it nearly as well had I not seen the movie. It’s the second best story in the book.

Apt Pupil would be a terrifying read in any year, I suppose, but in 2020 when actual nazis are among us again and mass shootings are at an all time high, it’s even more terrifying. Sure, there are fewer nazis than some media would have you believe, but they have been emboldened lately, and some people who should know better look the other way when their party implicitly accepts them. And sure, more gun deaths are suicides than mass shootings, but that doesn’t make the mass shootings any less tragic. Apt Pupil is the story of a 13 year old boy who becomes fascinated with the nazis to the point that he recognizes a nazi war criminal living in his town. He blackmails the nazi into talking about his experiences running the medical side of a concentration camp and both characters go into a homicidal spiral even as they blackmail each other. This is an incredibly tense thriller with a lot of resonance. It’s not horror in the same way King’s handful of previous books had been, but it is very much horrifying. There are two really big coincidences at the end, but if you’re willing to suspend just a little disbelief, the story is riveting.

The Body is the basis for the movie Stand by Me, which, sad to say, I haven’t seen. I’m pretty sure I’ve read at least some of the story before. I’ve read at least the pie eating section before (no one who’s read that is likely to forget it, even though I would have initially guessed that it was John Irving), but as I read the novella I didn’t remember much else other than the basic premise; four friends hear about the location of the dead body of a missing boy. As they go they learn about death for the first time, among other things. King is so good at ruminating on growing up and friendships among kids (see: IT). There are two nested short stories. The second, the aforementioned pie contest story, is great. The first is a pretty bad noirish story. The narrator, a King stand-in writing the story 30 years later bemoans its badness, but saw it as the first thing that was in his own voice. I get what he was going for with it, both in terms of recognizing it as a breakthrough and the thematic resonance with the rest of the story, but the novella would be improved without it. Then there’s the dialog, which I don’t know what to make of. No group of kids talks like every group of kids, but I’m not convinced ANY group of kids would talk like this. That said, I was able to get past both the first story and the dialog because the rest of the story is so compelling, even if it is my least favorite of the quartet. It’s still very good. I’m looking forward to watching the movie soon.

The final story, The Breathing Method, is the closest the collection gets to supernatural horror (though it’s almost more magical realism with a really gory moment with some nice cosmic horror hints). It posits a group of upper middle class and upper class New Yorkers whose club tells each other stories once a week, and around Christmas they tell more supernatural stories. I loved the frame story so much, and the story of a miraculous birth on Christmas Eve that forms the central tale is really unsettling. The strength of this novella is the sense that there is a fully realized world full of other stories and dimensions that it doesn’t tell. This was easily my favorite of the bunch. I get the sense it was a homage to some other writer, but I’m not sure who (there’s a hint of Lovecraft, but that’s not it). At any rate, it is one of the best things I’ve read by King.

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption- canon-worthy
Apt Pupil- highly recommended
The Body- recommended/highly recommended
The Breathing Method- canon-worthy

Books Owned But Previously Unread 2020 1/75

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

I think that what I liked the most about White Teeth is the sense that Smith understands that the world keeps going despite our ideologies. Twice during the course of the story, one of the characters, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, fully expects the world to end with Christ’s return, and it doesn’t. This functions as a metaphor for the rest of the ideologies at play in the book.

The book spans most of the 20th Century climaxing as the century flips over and ideologies collide. It is in part a multigenerational dysfunctional family drama/comedy. This is a pretty standard genre, but Smith handles it well. White Teeth is certainly much better than the couple of Franzen novels I’ve read that cover similar ground. Every family member’s perspective is given time and, even as she  mocks them, mostly gently, they seem like fully realized characters. It is also in large part about the immigrant experience in England. I’m ill-positioned to say how accurately this aspect is, but it feels genuine and has a believable complexity. Both of these narrative strands play into the book’s statement on ideology.

Two WWII veterans married much younger women in the 1970s. Salmad Iqbal, from Bangladesh, a Muslim who believes yet is conflicted about his faith and is inconsistently strict in his adherence to it, marries Alsana Begum, also Bangladeshi. They have a turmoil laden, and often physically violent relationship. Their twin sons, Millat and Magid, take drastically different paths  The former stays in England and vacillates between rebellious street tough and radicalized Muslim. The latter, though he returns to Bangladesh for most of his youth, takes on a very British colonialist/capitalist attitude. Both drive their father to frustration. The other WWII vet, Archie Jones, a very middle of the road, indecisive Brit, marries Clara Jones, the young daughter of a devout Jehovah’s witness who is trying to escape that miliu. Their daughter Irie grows up to be an atheist.  Rounding out the main cast are the Chalfins, Marcus and Joyce who are upper middle class scientists, and their son Josh, a nerdy kid who rebels against them by joining a militant animal rights group. These characters represent various ideologies, but aren’t just that, they seem fully formed.

The book has a lot of fun as the various characters react to each other and build their ideologies in opposition to others. There are Muslims who believe and are conflicted. There are convinced Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are middle of the road lower middle class don’t rock the boat types. There are radicalized Muslims. There are radicalized animal rights activists. For a good chunk of the book it seems as if Smith is pitting all of these against a scientific rationalism, but she really undercuts that worldview as much as the others. All of them are utopian on some level, and therefore, Smith intimates, on some level false. Each character is pulled in different directions by various familial, cultural and ideological forces. A couple are entirely convinced of their positions, but most waver. And yet the world moves on.

If none of these ideologies, and, presumably by extension, no ideology that lays claim to total explanatory truth, is right, how then should the characters live? Smith’s answer is an existentialist, specifically Sartrean, one. They have to choose and live with the consequences. Of course, existentialism is also an ideology, but I respect Smith’s rejection of utopianism and her understanding that ideologies, when they become all-important, are dangerous. There is an ever present temptation to posit ourselves as the end point of history with the final say, the ultimate perspective when we’re essentially another step along the way. This isn’t to say that ideologies can’t give insight, nor that some are closer to reality than others (often much closer), but ultimately we’re left with the choices we make and the consequences thereof. It’s a bleak point of view that Smith is putting forth, but, at least for me, it’s a hard one to argue against. It’s even a little comforting after some wrestling with it.

But the book carries that thematic weight lightly for the most part. It is often funny. It is well written and well constructed.

Highly recommended.