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.)