Monday, November 30, 2020

Murder of Angels by Caitlin Kiernan

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

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

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

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

Highly Recommended bordering on Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 80/75

Monday, November 23, 2020

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

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

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

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

Highly Recommended  

Library Books and Everything Else 35/35

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (2020 reread)

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

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

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


Annual Reread 2020 4/8

2019 Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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

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

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

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

Highly Recommended 

Rereads And Everything Else 31/35

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Liars' Club by Mary Karr

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

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

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

Highly Recommended

Owned but Previously Unread 79/75

Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti

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

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

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

Highly Recommended

From An Omnibus and Everything Else 2020 29/35

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

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

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

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

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

Titus Groan- Canon Worthy

Gormenghast- Canon Worthy

Titus Alone- Recommended 

Books read 105-107/110

Owned but previously Unread 2020 78/75

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