Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

Hypnotically simple, subtle story of a 37-year old man with mental issues who lives with his spinster older sister on the edge of a lake in Norway.  She knits sweaters to earn their keep and he does nothing, at first.  The novel's point of view is entirely his, Mattis', and though he is intellectually challenged, the moral acuity of his emotional intelligence is breath-taking.  He ends up becoming a "ferryman" as much in his own imagination as in the real world -- his one ferrying job brings a lumberjack to the isolated cabin Mattis lives in with his sister Hege, and Hege and the lumberjack become lovers, creating an insoluble difficulty in Mattis' deceptively simple existence.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

started weakly but I grew to like it.  much more somber book from him.  a lot of talk about expensive watches.

from Dwight Garner's NYT review:  [GS] is is light, stinging, insolent and melancholy, to borrow the words the critic Kenneth Tynan kept on his writing desk to remind himself how to sound.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

There There by Tommy Orange


The Wig by Charles Wright


The Life of John Berryman by John Haffenden

 They sell the reader short by trimming texture to a thesis. Haffenden on limitations of literary biography

The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. 

Berryman on Delmore Schwartz's praise of JB's poems: One word is worth it all.  The sick waiting, and letting the poems go out despised, the insufferable reviewers, the silence from whatever readers; the arrogance and the sick doubt; the terrible hours of probing as at a wound, looking, looking, for what may not be there; the conscience and the dry throat, the dry eyes; the piercing hope. 

Schwartz to Mark Van Doren on JB: for what he needs in the most obvious way is some kind of situation to cope with besides his own feelings.

I set up The Dream Songs as hostile to every visibile tendency in both American and English poetry -- in so far as the English have any poetry nowadays. The aim was the same in both poems: the reproduction or invention of the motions of a human personality, free and determined... Critics are divided as to the degree of my success in both cases. Long may they rave!

from the novel  Recovery:
On the rare occasions when he had ever applied for anything - Guggenheim and so forth - he sweated. It was beneath his dignity.  His position was: let the Universe collect & do his bidding without being asked.

Some of the best kind of writing is really transparent....The artist just says what he thinks, or says how he feels....The art comes just in placing, pure syntax.


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The World As It Is by Ben Rhodes

Quick history of the Obama years by his principal speechwriter and an important foreign policy advisor.

Hit and Misses by Simon Rich

First four stories are great, the next fourteen fall of sharply.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell by Paul Mariani.

experience cannot tell you/experience is what you do not want to experience

Great book, and a palate cleanser/corrective after reading the recent River of Fire book focussing on Lowell's mania.

First seizure/manic episode in 1944 after writing "Colloquy on Black Rock."

Randall Jarrell on the intentional difficulty of modern poetry: with poet and public "staring at each other with righteous indignation, til the poet said, 'Since you won't read me, I'll make sure you can't.'"

Cold Harbor, "birth of the dogtag," in poem Inauguration Day: January 1953.

on writing prose: He wants to change every second word, but while he toys with revisions, "the subject sinks like a dead whale and lies in the mud of the mind's bottom."

most people were "warped old dogs set on lying in the sun and changing as little as rocks."

about the Beats: "the best poems are not necessarily poems that read aloud."

WC Williams was "right about our U.S. speech and emotional rhythms being unlike the British."

RL speech on the Gettysburg Address:  America's "struggles with four almost insoluble spiritual problems" which the Gettysburg address had somehow adumbrated: "how to join equality with excellence, how to join liberty with justice, how avoid destroying or being destroyed by nuclear power, and how to complete the emancipation of the slaves."

Mary McCarthy on Lowell's illness: "Poor Cal, one day in seven he's as God intended him to be."

One had "a thousand opportunities to misrevise."


Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Re-read it for the second or third time, even better this time around, if a trifle long.  I read a snarky remark by Martin Amis about it, and this drove me back:

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed — I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing — I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think.

Heller began the novel when he was 30, and published it when he was 38.  There are show-offy words here and there -- and whole chunks of it seen overwritten -- but it's an extraordinary novel, and even more so for being a first novel.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Going Away by Clancy Sigal

Stunning book I just heard about.

John Leonard in the New York Times wrote: "Better than any other document I know, Going Away identified, embodied and re‐created the postwar American radical experience. It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains.... (Sigal's) intelligence is always ticking. His ear is superb. His sympathies are promiscuous. His sin is enthusiasm."











The View from Flyover Country by Sarah Kendzior

Short moral essays on the decay of the American economy and culture, and politics and government, from 2011-2013.  Depressing.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa

You're closer to reality in a whorehouse than in a convent.

In this country a person who doesn't fuck himself up fucks up other people.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

... because of his association with Edward Said, who of course before he died wrote an essay on late style-- the notion that an awareness of one's life, and therefore one's artistic contribution coming to an end affects an artist's style, whether by imbuing it with a sense of resolution and serenity or with intransigence, difficulty, contradiction.

Crane: an artist is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself at will through certain experiences sideways.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Part two in his trilogy.  I took a LOT of time off between reading the first monumental installment, THE PASSAGE.  And it was nice returning to the time of the Virals.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Terrific dense 1989 novel from my favorites author of 1979.  Didn't catch this one first time around, but it's miles ahead of GARP.

The ALL-CAPS voice of Owen Meany, while at first worrisome because, you know, all caps, is a singular achievement.  Indelible character drawn mainly through his voice. Owen is also a prime mover in the passive life of his best friend Johnny Wheelwright, who quietly narrates the novel.

Weaknesses: the "present-tense" narration of the narrator's current spiritual life as an expatriate in Canada drags and drags on.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

GREAT graphic novel.  Like the show OCR too, but it seems to be just the sheen of the novel without the grit. Going to see it March 10.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

The genre says it all: Domestic Fiction.

Everything about it is neat: the cunning mirror-image plot, the finely-drawn characters, fine without ever spilling over into memorable.  a little too neat for my taste.

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

Working my way back through Johnson's work after his lamentable early death, I realize I'm fonder of the later stuff than the earlier.  This is earlier, the much-fawned-over druggie tales.  The imagery doesn't seems as stunning to me as it seems genre-driven: the surreal-poetry-image, the disconnected narratives, the violence everywhere calmly announced.

I think TREE OF SMOKE is his masterpiece, a real novel, deep.

The World According to Garp by John Irving

Difficult to re-read this now and not know now what I didn't know then.  The cultural moment of Garp -- Irving's sudden celebrity, the big movie they made out of it with big stars (must watch it again) -- overshadows the book.

The whole second half I had largely forgotten.  But the first half is vivid.  There is something about Irving's phrasing that is always memorable even if his characters seem more one-dimensional than real.  The voice is something, though.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

“In my experience, the people who worry about losing their edge, often they fail to see they already lost the blade along time ago.”

My second attempt at reading this. Bought it when it came out in 2009 and got to page 292.  My dim memory is that I was floundering in the sea of Yiddish terms and also, #2, it weren't no Kavalier and Klay.

Loved it this time around.  Thick book -- Chabon really lays it on thick with sense description, and it starts to slow things down halfway through, and take some steam out of the engine of a great noir whodunit -- but Chabon's writing in and of itself is such a great wallowing pleasure, he's always trying to please, and I love the book for that.