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

Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull

 I was honestly surprised at how well I liked this book. I picked it up because it is the required textbook for a class that I co-teach/provide heavy support for at the College where I work. I’m a huge Pixar fan, and Catmull was one of the three main driving forces in the life of that company, along with John Lassiter and Steve Jobs. That said, business management books are, to say it kindly, not a genre that appeals to me at all. Couple that with the allegations and subsequent ouster of John Lassiter from Pixar/Disney for workplace harassment; these seem to undercut any tips for leadership from someone who partnered with Lassiter for years. That said, if you add a strong dose of zero tolerance for harassment to the rest of the book, there is some really good food for thought here.

It’s hard to argue with the bulk of Pixar’s consistently excellent output. Hearing the behind the scenes story of how they paired technical brilliance with an insistence on stories that work was on one level inspiring. I particularly appreciated the acknowledgement that, despite the brilliance of the people they hired, there was a lot of randomness that was involved in gaining that position. The chapters that dealt with the impact of randomness and of the unknown really reminded me of Nassim Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan, but without Taleb’s condescending tone. (I recommend those two Taleb books despite that.) It was refreshing for someone that successful to actually acknowledge that if a few things had rolled a different way (if Jobs had been able to sell them when he initially wanted to, if someone hadn’t made a personal backup for the work done on Toy Story 2 so they could work from home during a pregnancy) that the company could have easily floundered. 

I also liked the policy that anyone in the entire work chain can suggest changes without fear of reprisal. And the policy that people should speak with candor. I think these are keys to a good workplace. They had a day long retreat, or “notes day” which was built around the idea that anyone could make suggestions to improve the culture of Pixar and their processes without worrying that it would get them in trouble. This is where the ideal versus what happened is most easily questioned. In the lead up to notes day, everyone suggested ideas to work on, and these submissions were combined and winnowed to arrive at the smaller number of issues that were addressed that day. I find it hard to believe that no one mentioned Lassiter’s behavior in that first round of suggestions. There is no doubt that Lassiter was incredible at his job, but he also contributed to the negative aspects of the culture that developed at Pixar.

All that said, if you can add some basic idea of non-harrassment and the inclusion of women in the processes that they were excluded from, the advice in this book is very good.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 76/75

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

 Susanna Clarke’s Jane Austen-era historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel is one of my favorite books. I’ve given it away 10 or 12 times over the years as I’ve found used or remaindered copies. Clarke has had some real health problems in the interim sixteen years since that book’s publication, and was unable to do the historical research required for a follow up. Fortunately, she got well enough to write recently. Piranesi, while it couldn’t be more different from Strange and Norrell  in some ways, is equally good, maybe even better (or at least closer to the center of my taste). It was worth every second of the decade and a half wait. The closest I can come to describing it is that it is almost as if CS Lewis wrote House of Leaves. That is an apt, if jarring comparison and somewhat reductive one.

The title character got his nickname from the Other, the only other living human in his world. The name is a reference to the Italian print maker obsessed with Labyrinths. Piranesi lives in a house that is also a world. There are a seemingly endless series of connected classical buildings. There are four distinct seas complete with their own tidal systems in the lower halls and rain and fog in the upper. Piranesi does not know his true identity, and lives a sort of contemplative life cataloging the statues that line the halls and fishing in the lower seas to feed himself. He understands some things that clearly come from our world, but the house is the only reality he knows. To say much more would venture into spoiler territory.

Clarke builds an incredibly evocative mythic atmosphere. It is both contemplative and awe inspiring. The statues in the halls have significance, but are often ambiguous (though at least in one case, a clear reference which doubles as a subtle clue to what is happening). When I first heard the book described, I expected more horror than is present. There is horror, but it is not the primary mood. As Piranesi gradually discovers what is happening Clarke generates real tension without damaging the wonder of the House that is Piranesi’s world. And, as David Mitchell’s blurb says, the ending is pitch perfect. I would never have anticipated this as a followup to Strange and Norrell, but as I’ve sat with it for a couple of days I really think I may like it more. Rereading will be the tell.

Canon Worthy

Handful Of Exceptions And Everything Else 2020 15/35





Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

 Last year in preparation for the Amazon Prime adaptation, I read this for the third time and it clicked for me in a way it hadn’t on the first two passes.I’d always liked the conceit: the antichrist is switched at birth and when he comes into his powers things go awry, but it didn’t quite land for me. I was still a fairly devout Christian or close enough to that viewpoint that, despite being a good enough sport by that time to be able to take a joke, I was, like The Ringer’s Brian Phillips*, a little too close to the source material to fully appreciate the absurdity of some of the book’s action. Last year, though, it really clicked into place. I loved the series as well; I couldn’t imagine a better adaptation. On this fourth pass, prompted by an online book club, I still really loved it.

An angel, Aziraphale, and his opposite number, the demon Crowley (formerly Crawley) are charged with representing their representative sides in the battle for the souls of humanity. But they form an odd friendship over the centuries and the lines between good and evil are blurred. When Crowley is tasked with switching out the Antichrist for the son of an American diplomat the two hilariously and half-heartedly try to woo him to their sides as he grows. But then when the actual antichrist hits puberty and events are set into motion they realize the aforementioned baby swap and have to deal with the consequences. The actual Antchrist is a boy named Adam; he and his friends (the Them, in the parlance of their annoyed neighbors) hold the key to how things play out. The cast of characters is wide and varied, and every one is a delight. I especially liked the courier who delivered the news of the impending apocalypse to the four horsemen of the same and Agnes Nutter the witch whose book handed down among her ancestors drives much of the plot. And I just love that there’s a character named Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer.

Good Omens is a very good blend of Pratchett and Gaiman’s styles. I’ve heard people who are fans of one over the other complain that it’s not like their solo work, but I think the mix works well. It is a humanist book; it asks the question, if certain religious people weren’t so concerned with apocalypse and justice in the afterlife, would they work harder for justice in this one? But despite that philosophical underpinning it is primarily  a hilarious action comedy/fantasy story, and the chronicle of a centuries long friendship. 

Highly Recommended 

Rereads And Everything Else 2020 14/35


Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Autobiography of Malcolm X As Told To Alex Haley

 A friend gave me a copy of this book seventeen or eighteen years ago and it’s sat on my various shelves since then. Like a couple of other books I’ve read during this project of focusing on books I own and not buying new ones, I’m both upset with myself for having not read it sooner and wondering if I would have been ready for it in my 20s. I’ve gone through a major ideological shift in the interim time and I wonder if my younger self would have been able to get past the deliberately provocative parts of this book to the societal truths that it contains. Because there is a lot to object to here, but his anger is justified, and his assessment of systemic racism is on point.

The narrative arc is a familiar one. As an ex-Christian, I have heard many stories which tell in detail the subject’s life before conversion, as if to convince the reader/listener that they know whereof they speak when they say they know sin. Then there is the coming-to-understand-the-truth moment and their lives are irrevocably changed. There is a lot of truth in that story archetype. People are changed by adopting a different religious (or political) ideology. One thing I appreciate about Malcolm X, as pointed out by the friend who gave me the book, is that as fierce as he was in his ideology, he budged a little on race issues when he became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam. And, with Haley’s help, X is able to compellingly tell his story. From start to finish this the narrative pulls the reader along.

He begins with his early days in Michigan. His father, a preacher, spent much of his time promoting Marcus Garvey’s ideology for which he was murdered. Malcolm X eventually moved to Boston then New York where he was, in his terms, a street hustler and drug dealer. Eventually he ended up in prison where he encountered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam through correspondence with his family on the outside. After prison he threw himself into bringing that message, and the message of the damage done to black Americans by the system that favors white men to an ever increasing audience. After Elijah Muhammad, he was the most prominent member of the Nation of Islam and was key in it’s rapid expansion. Later in life, though, he became disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation. He went on a pilgrimage to Mecca where he first encountered white people who he felt he could trust. He left the Nation and formed a separate Islamic group and continued to be one of the primary voices of the more revolutionary end of the Civil Rights movement. 

As I said above, there are things to object to in the book. My agnosticism towards Christianity extends past that to Islam; I am skeptical of any ideology that makes claims to be the only source of truth. The book, and Malcolm X, have been criticized for misogyny, and the book bears that out as at least partially valid. Despite his protestations to the contrary in the book, the accusations of anti-semitism seem to be at least partially valid as well. But, for me at least, while acknowledging those issues, I can still recommend the book full-throatedly because it paints a vivid and angry portrait of the systemic racism that is baked into American culture. This really is one of the most convincing expressions of that system of oppression I’ve read. And his criticism of Christianity as having been used as a tool of that oppression is hard to argue. Given that we’re still dealing with that system that hasn’t changed enough, it’s easy to see the appeal of the more revolutionary attitude. All in all, I recommend this highly, despite taking issue with a lot of the particulars. It’s a compelling story from start to finish.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 73/75

Saint Thomas Aquinas by GK Chesterton

 Last year I read a book of Chesterton’s essays and I remembered why I had liked him so well years ago, and saw how I had come to disagree with well over half of what he said. Including this one, I’ve read six or so of his books, but Orthodoxy, discovered while I was in college, was incredibly influential on my back during my Christian days. I doubt I’m exaggerating if I say I’ve read it 10 times, though half of those were before I kept a reading log so I can’t say for sure. It’s an explanation of why he is a Catholic and has some of the funniest, most paradoxical and nearly magical writing about faith I’ve read. Despite my subsequent apostasy, his voice is imprinted on my brain. No one turns a phrase quite like he does. When I read some of his essays last year that voice was on full display, and I understood a little better what he meant when he openly claimed to be a medievalist (in the sense of sharing the outlook of medieval Christianity, not being one who studies it). He actually thought that medieval Christian philosophy was right and used insights from it in his quarrel with modernity, the specifics of which quarrel I heartily disagree with while really enjoying his rhetorical force and wit. This short biography of Aquinas, in addition to being an enjoyable reading experience and informative for someone who is unfamiliar with the subject, really lays out Chesterton’s reasons for claiming medievalism.

Chesterton begins by contrasting Aquinas both physically and philosophically with St. Francis, a subject of a similar earlier book. Ultimately he argues that for all their seeming difference, they were both devout Catholics and despite their different approaches were essentially after the same thing. He then narrates the life of Aquinas, which was eventful and, in Chesterton’s telling, compelling. As he explicates at a popular (as in not academic) level Aquinas’s philosophy, he argues that the “dark” ages, or rather the years of Aquinas’s life, were, in fact, the high point of Christian philosophy. He argues that rather than making Christianity Aristotelian, as is commonly supposed, he Christianized Aristotle.

While this is the clearest statement I’ve read so far of Chesterton’s reasons for being a medievalist, I am still not convinced by his argument. That said, it does give him some good insights. From the viewpoint of the present it is easy to see the past as a monolith which it clearly was not: "It is not at all easy for us to feel that distant events were thus disconcerting and even disreputable. Revolutions turn into institutions; revolts that renew the youth of old societies in their turn grow old; and the past, which was full of new things, of splits and innovations and insurrections, seems to us a single texture of tradition." From this perspective it becomes hard to argue that history is a single progression forward towards a unified goal. While I suspect that Chesterton would disagree, this is why fighting for what we call progressive values is important; they are by no means inevitable. History is a welter of contradicting urges and motivations. It’s tempting to see ourselves as the pinnacle of societal development rather than just another point along the way, but that is wrong thinking. While I wouldn’t share Chesterton’s assessment of current events, either in his day or projecting forward what he would likely think of ours, his perspective from medieval times does a very good job of undercutting a cocksure sense of our own day as the end of history. 

All in all a good narrative of Aquinas’s life that doesn’t delve too deeply into his theology and does a good job (to my untrained eyes) of introducing and contextualizing his philosophical thought.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 75/75

Friday, September 18, 2020

Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 I’ve enjoyed the five books I’ve read by Garcia Marquez before, most especially 100 Years of Solitude, which is a masterpiece, and Autumn of the Patriarch, which I’m pretty sure I’ll think is also a masterpiece upon rereading it. I picked this up a while back at a library sale when I was gathering more of his books to read. I thought it was a novella, but it’s a narrative recreation of actual events in the 1950s that Garcia Marquez ghostwrote with the titular sailor. In the prologue, Garcia Marquez paints a picture of the sailor as potentially unreliable in the details and a hog for the publicity he got for surviving his ordeal. But, incontrovertably, he did survive that ordeal. To quote the book, “"Some people tell me this story is a fantasy. And I ask them: If it is, then what did I do during my ten days at sea?"

And Garcia Marquez tells that story with his characteristic style and aplomb. It was initially published serially, and I think that would have been an incredible way to experience the story. The sailor was swept off the deck of a Destroyer (along with some illicit cargo that caused quite a bit of controversy when the first chapters came out). Each day gets a chapter and, despite previous knowledge of the outcome the chapters end on cliffhangers. The sailor goes through a grueling ordeal and Garcia Marquez makes the most of that story. It’s not Moby Dick, but is on par with Old Man and the Sea.

Highly Recommended

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 74/75

David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

 I’ve read all of David Foster Wallace’s three novels, his three story collections and his first three essay collections. I’ve read his biography and the long interview book, Although Of Course You Always End Up Being Yourself.  I think he’s a great writer, even if I’m not as fierce on the subject as his most outspoken proponents. The cult of genius that has built up around him, while at least somewhat justified, is a bit off putting. Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a fan; of the essays more so than the fiction. This collection of interviews, beginning with a 1996 one from Salon and ending with the titular final one for the Wall Street Journal shortly before his death in 2013, would probably work best for someone who had read at least a little of the books and knew a little about him.

For instance, one of the main plot strands of Infinite Jest takes place in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. In the opening interview of the book, he says he went to some AA meetings with some friends, eliding, entirely justifiably, his own problems with alcohol and experiences in AA, which his biography talks about in some detail. I can’t remember if it was in another interview or in one of the essays, but in the aftermath of 9/11 he talked about being with his “church” which some people were surprised about having (rightly) assumed he was somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum. Here he was talking about his AA group. Knowing that he had first hand experience of AA changes the perception of the interview.

A less savory elision came in a list of writers he recommended. He mentioned Mary Karr as the “best female poet under 50” in one of the early interviews. She is on record about his stalker-ish and abusive behavior towards her after they dated briefly in the early 90s. Not that the interviewer should have known to press him on that point, but it did immediately bring that to mind. I’m not going to pretend I don’t like Wallace, but neither am I going to pretend I don’t know some of the less savory aspects of his life.

In a strange coincidence of reading, I read two books in a row in which someone spoke highly of Annie Dillard. One of Wallace’s interviewers and he went back and forth about one of her essays. Frederick Buechner mentioned that he recommended Holy The Firm (my favorite Dillard) to his friend the poet James Merrill. I always enjoy seeing that a writer shares my appreciation for another. And when writers as different as Buechner and Wallace like a writer, that speaks well for the writer.

My favorite parts of the collection were his discussion with Dave Eggers for The Believer of the mathematician at the heart of his Everything and More (which I haven’t read yet) and his recognition in 2005 of the emerging untenable state of political discourse, which foreshadows the current situation. 

Recommended (if you’re already pretty familiar with Wallace)

Owned But Previously Unread 72/75

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Eyes of the Heart by Frederick Buechner

There are few writers whose prose delights me as much as Frederick Buechner’s. It’s always good, but the narrator of Godric (one of the four books I’ve read 11 times as an adult) is one of the voices in my head and I’m glad to have it there. I’ve read sixteen of his books (if you count the Bebb books separately even though they’re collected in an omnibus), probably evenly divided between the fiction and his sermons/theological work. Buechner, like the catholic writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Graham Greene, are often cited as gateways into the faith for some people; in some way they were gateways out of the faith for me. Buechner’s liberal theology, his insistence on doubt. and the fallibility of his characters, who were often hilariously fallible, really challenged my certainty in my worldview; I was encountering different ways of thinking in a palatable way for the first time.

Because Buechner seems to really believe in God and in Jesus. His is a faith that is far more willing to doubt than most Christian thinkers I had encountered before who could invoke grandeur and a sense of awe, but seemed unassailed by doubt. I’m thinking here of writers like AW Tozer, not writers like CS Lewis, who definitely towards the end engaged seriously with doubt than Tozer, but it was not as central to his work outside of A Grief Observed and Till We Have Faces (the latter one of the other books I’ve read 11 times as an adult). I’m sure Tozer did have doubts at some point, but they were never the point of his writing, at least in the half a dozen or so of his books I read in the ‘90s. Buechner, though, fully embraced it as part of the human condition. And yet he was a believer. Through the sermon collections and other nonfiction of his I read that is clear. 

He wrote four volumes of memoir, this the final one. I read another, The Longing For Home, and, judging by my Goodreads rating, I did not enjoy it as well as this one several years ago. As soon as I started reading The Eyes of the Heart I was caught up in his voice, not entirely dissimilar from Godric’s, if more muted and restrained. Buechner writes the book as an old man (then in his 70’s. He’s 94 now) looking back at his life by way of conversations with the imagined ghosts of family, primarily his grandmother, as he takes them on a tour through his library/memorabilia room. In other hands this could be the epitome of boredom, but Buechner manages to make it captivating. He talks about his friendship with the poet James Merrill, his best friend from college. Buechne never quite seems to have come to terms with Merrill’s homosexuality despite his obvious affection for the man and his jealously for how openly Merrill expressed himself in his life and memoir. Buechner seems to lament his inability to be that open outside of fiction: “I think, by contrast, of how timorous I have been not only in my life but in these now four volumes of memoirs that I have written, in which I have touched from time to time on the dark guest who dwells in us all but have never risked laying fully bare the lust, the anger, the childishness, the paralyzing anxiety that are so helplessly part of who I am." In fairness that all comes through much more clearly in his fiction, which may well be why I prefer that over the nonfiction. 

I don’t know how this would play to someone who had not read extensively in his earlier work. When he talks about his father’s suicide (when Buechner was six) I felt the weight of that because the absent father is a consistent them in his work, especially in Godric. But for me, who has read quite a bit of his work it was a powerful reading experience. 

Highly Recommended (But read Godric or The Book of Bebb first).

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 70/75

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party by Graham Greene

The only Graham Greene novel I didn’t at least like among the 11 I’ve read before this one is The Quiet American. I know a lot of people love that one, but for some reason when I first read it in 2009 it fell flat. I gave it another whirl in 2018, but it still didn’t work for me. Most of these I read from around 2006-2011, but I trust my positive memories of the others despite the intervening time because I reread The Power and The Glory in 2016 and it reaffirmed its place on my favorites list. When I was in the throes of my first pass through some of Greene’s work I ended up picking up copies of other books by him that I didn’t get around to reading then. Earlier this month I read his final novel, The Captain and the Enemy and really enjoyed it despite not caring for the ending. That book also reaffirmed my love for the feel and tone of Greene’s work. I’ve been going back and forth on Doctor Fischer, though. On the one hand it does have Graham’s excellent prose, some great humor (especially early on), and his wrestling with existential issues and the idea that God might be cruel. But on the other, it’s Greene at his most cynical and I can’t quite decide how I feel about the deliberately grotesque and exaggerated characters. 

It opens with the narrator, a British man in his 50s who lost a hand in the war. He works translating letters for a chocolate factory in Geneva. He falls in love with a woman about half his age and they get married. This is another point on which I’m not entirely certain. If the man had been in his thirties, I don’t think it would have changed the plot substantively and would have reduced the awkwardness that the narrator himself admits to early on. Nevertheless, her father, the titular Doctor Fischer, is a millionaire who made his fortune by creating a toothpaste company. He has hangers on who the narrator and his wife call the Toads (based on her initial malapropism for toadies) who he invites to elaborate parties in which he humiliates them by dint of the gifts they receive if they follow the rules of the party. They are all borderline caricatures; exaggerated avatars of Greene’s hatred for certain types of wealthy people (all wealthy people?). The narrator’s wife has broken contact with her father and tries to keep him from going to the parties, but he is drawn into that world.

I’m going back and forth on this one. Is it the grotesque, cynical parody of a comedy of manners about the cruelty of God that seems to have been Greene’s intention? That book I may have been uncomfortable with but would have really liked, I think, in the same way I liked the movie Nightcrawler; great work that makes me really skeptical of humanity. Or is it merely unearned nihilistic grotesquery not quite counterbalanced by a very uncomfortable love story. It’s Greene, so there is at least his prose and storytelling ability, but I’m pretty much mixed on it. If I was in a different mood I might really like this, or it could become the second Greene novel I strongly disliked. So it’s a split between a mild recommendation and a mild pass.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 69/75

Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong

Back in my evangelical days, I feel like I was steered away from Karen Armstrong by the reactions of my theologically conservative friends for some reason. I don’t remember any specifics, but somehow I got the impression that her A History of God was anti-Christian. Since my drift from the faith I had picked up a couple of her books at library sales, this and her book on the history of religion and violence. Reading this, I suspect that whoever gave me that impression was probably based on the fact that her approach is more from a place of comparative studies and the books about other religions that had currency in the circles I was in were from the perspective of how Christianity disproved other systems. But again, I don’t remember specific conversations, but a general impression. Despite my apostasy, I am still very interested in religion and after reading this, I’m looking forward to more of her work.

While I’m no expert, this strikes me as a very good one volume history of Islam. It’s particularly good on at least three fronts. First, Islam, in the west anyway, tends to be portrayed as a monolithic thing, and this does a great job of showing the various threads of the religion and undermining that presentation. Secondly, if one reads it with an open mind, it does a good job of describing the conditions under which the Muslim world first came into contact with western modernity which in turn goes a long way toward explaining the subsequent history between the cultures. Finally, her chapter on fundamentalism contextualizes the more extremist end of Islam as part of a wider phenomenon as religions come to terms with the modern world. While fundamentalism in the Muslim world gets the most press, it does show up in most world religions.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 71/75

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Over the past couple of years, Kiernan has become a favorite writer. Her blend of literary modernism with a horror mood, her gen-x transgressive streak, her absolute clear eyed approach to writing about mental illness and despair, her prose, and her ability to evoke a sense of queasy wonder have made for some of my most memorable recent reads. I started out with what was then her most recent novella, Agents of Dreamland, when I heard it plugged on the Coode Street Podcast in the context of a wave of work that was reimagining Lovecraft. At the time, I said it was Lovecraftian with nods to Le Carre, Winnie the Pooh, Literary Modernism and Vonnegut (I’m excited to revisit this and see if that assessment holds up. I’ve convinced one of my book clubs to use it as its next selection.) Since then I’ve read seven more novels and a best of short story collection by her. Most of that work does carry a heavy Lovecraft influence, but her voice is her own and she is a far better prose writer. I’m always a little leary going back to the early books of a writer I’ve loved for their later work. Silk is Kiernan’s debut, and while I picked up a copy shortly after discovering her, I had been worried whether or not I would like it. An unfounded hesitation.

Silk won an award and was shortlisted for another in the first horror novel category. And yet for nearly the first half of the book there is no clear supernatural horror at all. Instead it is a trip through a very specific southern version of decadent gen-x 90’s goth bohemia. It’s equal parts drug novel, trauma novel and the rough life of its poor, marginal, often queer characters. It feels a little like Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, or a queer version of the Johnny Truant sections of House of Leaves filtered through a song written by Tom Waits and performed by The Cure. It’s a squalid and fascinating world. Niki Ky, a woman fleeing her past breaks down outside of Birmingham, and falls in with Daria, the bassist and lead singer in a three piece band called Stiff Kitten. Daria is in a fractious relationship with her guitarist. Niki and the band members get mixed up with Spyder Baxter, a mysterious goth who runs a curiosities shop and her girlfriend, Robin and hangers on. Robin convinces those hangers on to participate in a peyote ritual of her own design which results in the awakening of horrors from Spyder’s past, with consequences for all the major characters. 

Even in this debut novel, Kiernan’s prose and ability to evoke horrors both supernatural and those resulting from past trauma is fully on display. Every character has a harrowing backstory and these play out in some melodramatic ways (I mean that mostly as a compliment). Holding back on the supernatural elements until the moment they emerged was a great strategy. Without that turn, this could have been a cult classic literary drug/bohemian novel. As is, the horror elements really take it over the top, especially for a debut. If I like Kiernan’s later work more, and I do, that’s more a reflection of my level of affection for those books and not on this.

Highly Recommended with a heavy content warning.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 68/75

The Mist In The Mirror by Susan Hill

I picked up a copy of this on a whim at a library sale in Raleigh a year or so ago, and I’m glad I did. I had never heard of Susan Hill before, though she’d been publishing books in the UK since the 1970s. I would read more of her books.

The Mist in the Mirror is a Victorian era gothic horror/weird tale. An aging man publishes a manuscript given to him when he was young by Sir James Monmouth. Monmouth was himself old at the time and was writing about his experiences in middle age. He was an Englishman who had been raised in Africa by a guardian. Upon that guardian’s death he took a colonial tour and spent years in various Asian and African countries. Monmouth was very much in the colonialist mindset, but that is not a theme that is explored deeply in the novel, unless I completely missed something in the subtext; a real possibility. Throughout his journeys he kept coming across traces of the presence of a colonial explorer named Conrad Vane.

The novel opens, inside the framing device, as Monmouth returns to England intent on a scholarly life, beginning with a biography of Vane. He checks into a low end boarding house and eerie things start happening. As he follows what leads he has about Vane’s life, he meets with a great deal of resistance and senses that there is some dark history around his subject. Soon he begins to find a dark history around his family as well.

While the themes of seeking out forbidden knowledge and finding out too much for one’s sanity may make this seem like a Lovecraftian work, it is not. It is gothic in mood. And mood is the key to what makes the book work. The resolution is just ambiguous enough, and the titular mist is never explained, but the book creates an eerie atmosphere that was quite enjoyable.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 67/75

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Difficult Wheel by Betty Adcock

 A friend with good taste recommended Adcock to me almost 15 years ago and I picked this up at the next Library Sale I attended, but I only got to it this year. I'm torn between being upset with myself for not reading these poems sooner and being glad I was ready for them when I did

These poems, especially in the first of three sections, really hit home with me. I will be dipping into this for years to come and seeking out more of her work.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 66/75

Thursday, September 3, 2020

The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greeene

There are two family movies that worked for me way better than I expected going in, but then in the final moments ruined what went before, or at least snapped the mood that had been created: Secondhand Lions and the first Night at the Museum. Going into them, they did not at all seem like they would be in my wheelhouse, and yet by the endings I had been won over. But then that came crashing down. In Secondhand Lions, all the characters from the tall tales the old men had been telling the protagonist showed up. I always thought it would have worked better, and been a nearly perfect family movie if they had left the veracity of those tales ambiguous. Night at the Museum came to a perfect, sweet, non-treacly ending. Then there’s a giant dance party in the museum that completely ruins the mood. In both cases the mood that was the natural stopping point was snapped and the viewer, or at least this viewer, left with a bad taste in the mouth. I had a similar, but less extreme reaction when reading Graham Greene’s final novel, The Captain and the Enemy.

Greene has long been a favorite. I discovered him almost two decades ago when I was delving into Catholic novelists. I loved how sordid and seamy his worlds were and how his characters end up in situations that they are sure will damn them (in the literal sense) and yet there is no other moral choice to be made, so they move on. I was nervous going into this, knowing it was very late in his career and I wondered if I would enjoy it. But it is a perfectly structured thing that begins with a shocker, turns into a coming of age story that is gradually revealed to be a love story and veers into espionage in the third act. All of this flows naturally and happens in a perfectly believable manner and comes to a perfect conclusion. Then there is a postscript chapter that plays like a joke from Greene’s excellent Our Man in Havana but feels very out of place here. I suspect the postscript is mainly intended to show the fate of the narrator of the main body of the text, but it undid the tonal work the rest of the novel built and I walked away with a different set of emotions than I would have if it had ended just a few pages earlier. 

Other than that ending, though, the book is fantastic. Great prose, great structure, intriguing story and characters. It has that same sense of frustrated moralism that is characteristic of the best of Greene’s work. The narrator gradually reveals his failings, almost without seeming to realize it. Brilliantly done. Similarly, the book comes out strongly against 1980s US foreign policy towards South America, without being explicitly polemic; it’s subtly done. Subtext is everything in this book, and the narrator is out of his depth. The natural ending point is somewhat cruel, if not as explicitly so as his bleak crime masterwork, Brighton Rock. While I was put off by the postscript, I enjoyed the rest of the book enough to recommend it enthusiastically.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 65/75

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

I picked up a used copy of I, Claudius years, maybe a decade, ago when I saw that it was on both the Modern Library 100 greatest novels of the 20th Century and Time Magazine’s top 100 lists. I have since decided that I don’t have to complete those lists (I still may, but I’m not obsessed with finishing them now). It has been on the shelf since then, and is a prime example of why I needed to do my 2020 project of focusing on reading books I owned at the beginning of the year.

The book I thought about most while reading I, Claudius was CS Lewis’s best novel, Till We Have Faces. This is unfair. While both are set in western antiquity and, to different extents, use ancient paganism to talk about Christendom (admittedly I, Claudius does this only obliquely, but it is there), they are very different. Till We Have Faces is set in the fictional city-state of Glome, which is not greek but interacts with the Greeks and retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of one of Psyche’s sisters. I, Claudius retells the period of Roman history from the aftermath of Julius Ceasar’s death to Claudius’s reluctant (in this telling) assumption of the throne in the first person voice of Claudius himself. Till We Have Faces is by far the better book, and the differences outweigh the similarities enough that it’s an unfair comparison, but the tone of I, Claudius brought the Lewis to mind.

My enjoyment of the book was certainly hobbled to some extent by being relatively ignorant of the period of Roman history covered. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book; I did. But I think a prior knowledge of the history it recounts would likely have really improved the reading experience. That said, the story is compelling, and Claudius’s voice is charming. He does seem to both want to pearl clutch and cluck the tongue at certain aspects of the decadence on display and participate in it at the same time. Some of that is an intentional complication of the character and some of it is a funny commentary on the time in which it was written. Overall, though, I, Claudius is a very enjoyable historical novel that I would recommend, especially to those who are interested in the time period.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 64/75