Saturday, December 17, 2011

Quarantine by Jim Crace

Inscrutable. Although I tried to scroot it.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Too scrutable. I remember 1982 and English majors and college, if only through my cave paintings from the time. These undergraduates are wholly too adult and perfectly-formed neurotics to be realistic.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pym by Mat Johnson

Tres bizarre. Supposed I should have read up on the original Poe story before I dove into this. Didn't. Seemed like a whacked adventure story (Cool Runnings?) crossed with a cultural critique a la John Henry Days.

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

A little bloodless so far. I loved Tomalin's Mrs. Jordan's Profession, but this seems much more subdued.

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

I threw it across the room halfway through. Probably better than that, but I have no patience for novels about rock music. This one seems particularly false to it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Turn of Mind by Alice LePlante

The initial conceit of the novel -- that a distinguished, brilliant orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand surgery now suffers from Alzheimers and assorted dementia and can no longer remember clearly whether or not she did or did not kill her best friend (who was found with four fingers severed from her hand) who lives three houses down -- is great. But it suffers in execution, as credulity is strained in accepting an effecting, detailed first-person narration spanning 60 years by someone with memory problems. However, the whodunit plot begins to fade in importance as the narrator's world becomes increasingly facetted and simultaneously dim. As a portrait of a mind giving its own eulogy, the book is alive and ferocious.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

A vision of an apocalyptic plague-infested New York City, as narrated by Whitehead's extremely intelligent narrative voice, as peopled by "Mark Spitz," a mediocre man try to live in a world with no future. Employed as a civilian "sweeper" to rid lower Manhattan of plague-infected humans-turned-cannibal, Spit mediates on his own very average pre-plague existence and longs for a return to its normalcy. Or does he? He also seems to hate his past, a little: as a young man, he was waiting for the future to be better. Spooky, mesmerizing, stunning book. First one of his books I've finished.

Extrememly Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Couldn't get traction, even after 100 pages. Liked the pages with one word or one sentence, or pictures. They went by fast.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Confederacy of Dunces

I used a recent trip to New Orleans as occasion to re-read one of my favorite books of all time, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, written in the late 1960s and then abandoned after a large New York publishing house sat on the manuscript after several revisions, and Toole then committed suicide in 1969. His mother lugged the manuscript to Walker Percy at Loyola University in New Orleans, who had published quickly after reading it, and the novel won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

A formative book for me, having read it (in all its surrounding mystique and legend and romance) shortly after it was published. I'd never re-read it, though: it was one of those books that affected me so strongly I shrugged off any impulse to try to re-create that first wondrous reading.

Since then, a cottage industry has developed around the book, its author, its origins. There is a memoir (Ken and Thelma by Joel Fletcher), a biography (Ignatius Rising by Rene Nevils), a theatrical piece, statues in New Orleans, blogs dedicated to the New Orleans streets and alleys and buildings where the book takes place, even a movie made of Neon Bible, a slim novel written by Toole as a teenager. Must search out of all of it.

For re-reading the book, mostly in New Orleans, was a delight. It is a satire of the best sort -- no one escapes the sword. Swiftian in its outrage, Rabeleisian in its low comedy, Confederacy sends up communism, urban development, the Renaissance, the 20th century, poor Southern whites, poor Southern Black, homosexuals, college campuses. There is an amazing sub-plot where Ignatius enlists the help of a gay man from the French Quarter, hoping to infiltrate the US military (and thereafter, armed forces around the world) with homosexuals, and have them take over and spend all the time and effort currently spend on war, on celebrations and fashion. The Peace Movement! Sort of an inversion of Dont Ask Don't Tell.

In some ways too, the book is almost tragic, as Ignatius' mother plots to have him committed to a mental institution at the end of the story, only to have Ignatius barely escape when his old college girlfriend Myrna Minkoff (herself a genius satirical caricature of feminism, free love, radical politics, and Jewishness) shows up and spirits him away in her car back to New York City.

There is Jones, the black janitor/doorman at the Night of Joy bar in the French Quarter. He is the closest thing to a hero in the novel.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

A terribly sad book about stoicism and impossible romance. Very different this time around, reading it: a difference of over 30 years, and my empathies with the book seemed to have enjoyed polar reversals. Now it does matter to me, Jake's great unnamed malady that sidelines him in his life.. Jake's stoicism and refusal to dwell on his own feelings is striking. Brett seems clownish and a little sluttish.

"It's an honest face. It's a face any woman would be safe with."
"She'd never seen it."
"She should have. All women should see it. It's a face that ought to be thrown on every screen in the country. Every woman ought to be given a copy of this face as she leaves the altar. Mothers should tell their daughters about this face. My son" - he pointed the razor at me-"go west with this face and grow up with the country."
He ducked down to the bowl, rinsed his face with cold water, put on some alcohol, and then looked himself carefully in the glass, pulling down his long upper lip.
"My God!" he said, "isn't it an awful face?"

Caffeine puts a man on her horse and a woman in his grave.

It was like certain dinners I remember from the way. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.

Then Everything Changed by Jeff Greenfield

Compelling "alternate history" of the second half of the 20th Century. What is JFK had been assassinated in December of 1960 (there was a planned attempt) rather than November 1963? What if RFK had NOT been assassinated. What if Gary Hart had been elected President in 1980?

BONUS INTERESTING THING: My father, Charles "Chuck" Enright is used as a character twice in the White House Situation Room scenes in the JFK section!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Walking to Hollywood by Will Self

Wondrous to me at first, as I had paid no attention to it when it came into, and so read it as fiction. Which it is apparently not. Then wondrously incomprehensible. And then just incomprehensible. Had read the New Yorker interview when Will Self had talked about walking from Kennedy Airpot into Manhattan. Having recently begun taking hour-long walks in the afternoon, it's a subject of interest to me. But Self's prose is so playful and erudite and self-reflecting that I threw down the book in disgust not even halfway through.

Last Orders by Graham Swift

Marvelous Pinter-esque, multiple-POV novel from the author of Waterland.

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me by Ian Morgan Cron

Was so looking forward to this. Couldn't get through fifteen pages. Weak, sappy, cliched prose.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Andromeda Strain meets The Passage meets Lord of the Flies meets Heart of Darkness meets Apocalypse Now. And not in a particularly interesting way.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Third Reich by Robert Bolano

An 1989 manuscript by Robert Bolano, discovered after his death, and scheduled for release in December 2011. (The Paris Review serially published the novel beginning early in 2011.) Sort of a Borges-meets-Raymond Chandler story set on the Costa Brava in Spain. Noted war-game champion Udo Berger vacations with his girlfriend Ingeborg at a small beachside resort where he spend childhood summers. They meet another couple, Charly and Hanna, and several locals: the Wolf, the Lamb, and most crucially, El Quemado (in Spanish, "burned" or "burned out" or simply "tanned"), a burn victim who runs a pedal-boat service on the beach.

There is much drunkenness, idleness and nighttime clubbing. Berger spends much of his time in the hotel room, staring at his favorite war-game, The Third Reich, which he is supposed to be writing an article on for a big industry publication. He begins pursuing Elsa, the owner of the hotel, a woman he remembers from his childhood, who is later revealed to be caring for her terminally-ill husband in another room in the hotel.

Charly, a bit of a wild man, disappears out at sea while wind-surfing. Berger begins an intense session of The Third Reich with El Quemado, a pathetic figure with severe burn scars, a pedal-boat vendor who lives beneath the "fortress" of pedal-boats he builds each night when the day's work is done. Ingeborg and Hanna return to Stuggart, but Berger stays on, obsessed with his war-game, waiting for Charly's body to be found, and half-enmeshed in a never-consummated romance with Elsa.

It's a Borgesian novel in that it circles obsessively from Berger's single point of view: one thinks variously that Berger is paranoid, paranormal, crippled by nostalgia and trapped by childhood, a violent man, a Nazi-glorifier, in that the story about a game soon becomes actually playing the game and ends up possibly not a game at all, as Berger slowly loses position and strength in the game he is playing with El Quemado (Berger is Germany, El Quemado is the Allies) and ends up on the verge of losing and worrying that El Quemado will demands Berger's own life as a reward. Berger has long, vivid dreams that blur into his waking: was it all imagined, or was some of it real?

It's Chandler in its seedy coastal town mystery of Who Killed Charly? and Where's the Body? Everyone is suspected, nothing is proved.

It's certainly a moody little book: dark and creepy. Berger is not the most reliable narrator, one wonders if he is up to something besides his crippling obsessions and passiveness. The hotel and the local beaches and bars are creepy, filled with lively, chattering passionate drifters. Certainly Bolano is discovering some of the motifs and styles he will later use to much stronger effect.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies—my only talent—smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.

Nothing remains but desire, and desire comes howling down Elysian fields like a mistral.

For another thing, it is not open to me even to be edifying, since the time is later than his, much too late to edify or do much of anything except plant a foot in the right place as the opportunity presents itself -- if indeed asskicking is properly distinquished from edification.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

God on the Rocks by Jane Gardham

Not her best, but still pretty good. The way exposition is handled -- by delay, third-peson reporting, and surprise -- is always deft.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Compass Rose by John Casey

Interesting "sequel" to Spartina.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie

So far the Thomas Merton material is the most interesting to me.

As a child, Flannery O'Connor wrote books which she saw "as too old for children and too young for grown-ups."

In 1949, when gravediggers in Queens went on strike for higher wages, Cardinal Spellman "ordered seminarians to dig the graves in their stead and refused to negotiate, calling the workers Communists in the press."

O'Connor on Catholic readers: "You can't shut them up before a thing comes out but you can look forward to a long mortified silence afterwards."

Merton: "There is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question."

What, then, was the Catholic Worker? "We are a group of people living together under one roof," she [Day] declared.

Whereas poverty in the Depression had brought people together in a great convergence of need and will, poverty in postwar America divided them from one another.

WP on JFK: The reason he was a great man was that his derisiveness kept pace with his brilliance and his beauty and his love of country. He is the only public man I have ever believed. This is because no man now is believable unless he is derisive.

WP on writer's block: "I am in low estate," Percy told Foote... "But it won't go, I am hung up, alas oh hopelessly hung up, sitting in front of my paper at 9:05 AM and growing sleepier by the minute. Fresh out of malice, piss, the love of God, hatred of things as they are, or whatever it takes, which I don't

Merton: "He answers again with his own experience, which is that God is a being to be known, not a problem to be solved, "and we who live the contemplative life have learned by experience that one cannot know God as long as one seeks to solve 'the problem of God.' To seek to solve the problem of God is to seek to see one's own eyes."

The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor

You can't get any poorer than dead.

Interesting as her second, and last novel. But not nearly as interesting as Wise Blood, her first, or the mature stories. The characters are familiar: Francis Marion Tarwater, the orphan raised in the woods by his grandfather, Francis's city-bred uncle Rayber and his brain-damaged son. Orphan makes for city after grandfather drops dead, orphan is torn between uncle's atheism and his grandfather's rabid evangelism, is tormented by a "shadow self" taunting him that he must go and finish his grandfather's work, by baptizing his cousin.

O'Connor's familiar metaphors and allegories are extended, repeated and embellished almost to the point of exhaustion. The plot is simple and not exciting. Worst of all, the characters in almost all instances lack the black comic power of her earlier creations.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Howard's End by E. M. Forster

Well, it is odd and sad that our minds should be such seed-beds, and we without power to choose the seed. But man is an odd, sad creature as yet, intent on pilfering the earth, and heedless of the growths within himself. He cannot be bored about psychology. he leaves it to the specialist, which is as if she should leave his dinner to be eaten by a steam-engine. He cannot be bothered to digest his own soul.

Still a beautiful, favorite novel, but it seemed a bit doughy this time around, thick with social commentary, narrator asides and the anthropomorphisms of the endless English countryside. Still the plot in the last quarter of the book unwinds with a relentless psychological urgency, as one of the Schlegels' favorite maxims becomes real: Places are more important than people.

"Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong for ever," she [
Margaret] said. "This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won't be a movement, because it will rest on the earth. All the signs are against it now, but I can't help hoping, and very early in the morning in the garden I feel that our house is the future as well as the past."

Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

I strugged with this novel. The fractured narrative of The English Patient here seems artificial, the plot-line unlikely.

I did like the description of the Ceylonese "eye-painter" whom the forensic team enlists to help them identify their Sailor corpse. And I liked the Van Morrison shout out. But that hardly seems enough.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

Wacky book. Little "Blindness" by Jose Saramango, little "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell, a little sprinkling of sci fi. Not sure I get it, but I read it avidly, wonderingly. What I worried was just going to be a runaway case of "magic realism" turned out to be a beautifully-observed, taut series of highly-detailed character sketches.

About the passage of a couple's "love journal" among several disparate people, at a time when the Earth has experienced a strange occurrence, "The Illumination" as it comes to be called, when all human physical pain is accompanied by a bright light shining from the pain's source.

Certainly the novel is about the meaning of pain, the sources of pain, the solution to pain, the differences between private and public pain, and it extends these philosophical questions by erasing the distinction between private and public pain.

A woman keeps a journal where she writes down daily the love notes her husband unfailingly leaves for her. When the wife dies in the hospital after a car accident where her husband also injured, the journal is taken home by the woman in the next hospital bed, who has cut her hand opening a nasty package from her ex-husband containing her alimony check.

The only real "plot" in the novel is the movement of the journal from one character to the next, its effect on each character.

The husband survives his injures, and traces the journals disappearance. He appears at the woman's doorway and demands the journal back. The man, a photojournalist, begins taking pictures of the strange light shows every human's body now makes, shining at the edge of any pain they feel. He photographs a group of high school "cutters," who slice themselves with knives.

Then a little boy, a neighbor of the man's, who suffers from a strange psychological "silence," steals the book, after peeking through the man's window and seeing that for him, an almost-autistic presence who much prefers things to people, the journal itself glows with all the pain of the man's memory of his wife.

The boy passes the journal on to a man who comes to his door to distribute Christian evangelical material. The man carries the journal around the country, and the world, as his mission continues. The novel veers forty years into the future to the man's death. He does observe over that generous span of time that "The Illumination" has done nothing to save or even improve the world: "Still they [children) grew into their destructiveness," he thinks, "and still they learned whose hurt to assuage and whose to disregard, and still there were soldiers enough for all the armies of the world."

Next the journal goes to successful fiction writer, suffering during a speaking tour from an assortment of cancer sores and inner mouth injuries that won't heal. Her son back at home trades for the journal from a street-person bookseller.

She begins communicating with her dead fiancee by leaving notes in cracks in the ground, and eventually tearing pages out of the journal and sticking them in the ground. The fiance replies. In the final chapter, via flashback, the story of how the indigent bookseller got the journal takes place.

Galore by Michael Crummey

There was a man who did Esther wrong. a horny, social-climbing tenor with busy hands who swore his undying love to her. He practiced his scales with his face between her legs, those muffled notes rising through her bones to strike in her head like pleasure's hammer. His father was German, his mother Italian, and he had confused the arts of love and war in his upbringing. He left her for a Frenchwoman with the breasts of a ten-year-old and a five-octave range.

The Canadian One Hundred Years of Solitude, Galore follows two Newfoundland fishing families over 2oo years of their intertwined, combative history, the family of Patick Devine and his wife, "Devine's Widow," and their antagonists, King-Me Sellers and his wife Selina.

The chart of the family tree at the beginning of the book gets as heavily-referenced as the one in Marquez's masterpiece. There is Judah on the Devine side, who is hacked out of a beached whale by Devine's Widow, whom King-Me Sellers believes to be a witch. The novel ends with Judah's great-grandson Abel returning to the inside of a whale.

The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction

What happened to science fiction writing? It got lost when everything turned out to be true.

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

In which Philip Marlowe gets locked up in a "cure house," strapped to a bed, pumped full of truth serum, and liberates himself by conking his guard on the head with a mattress spring. Among other things.

"You're so marvelous,"
she said. "So brave, so detemined and you work for so little money. Everybody bats you over the head and chokes you and smacks your jaw and fills you with morphine, but you just keep right on hitting between tackled and end until they're all worn out. What makes you so wonderful?"
"Go on,"
I growled. "Spill it."
Ann Riordan said thoughtfully, "I'd like to be kissed, damn you!"

There's a giant thug named Moose Malloy. There's a massive Hollywood Indian named Second Planting. There's a naive Bay City detective Marlowe renames "Hemingway" --"it's because you keep saying the same thing over and over." There's another giant, this time a gentle good guy, named Red Norgaard who takes Marlowe out to a gambling ship in the harbor.

From The Big Sleep: Marlowe's office suite contains "five green filing cases, three of them full of California climate."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The King is Alive

Fascinating "version" of Shakespeare, suggested to me by a friend when I trumpeted that Throne of Blood by Kurosawa was the best non-Shakespeare Shakespeare play I'd ever seen. A group of tourists on a safari bus in Africa decide to stage a version of King Lear as they wait for rescue. Relationships break down, adultery and violence rages, all against a bleak Saharan backdrop and "narrated" by an elderly African man who watches the tourists disintegrate and comments on them. Jennifer Jason Leigh appears, among others.

Part of the Dogme 95 avant-garde filmmaking movement, whose rules known as the Vow of of Chastity are:
  1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
  3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.
Trailer is here.

The thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

His unfinished final novel. Sad, depressing, brilliant. Endlessly self-conscious (even about self-consciousness), one feels Wallace creating an unfinishable tapestry that he's not able to complete. "I'm not putting this very well" is one narrator's ("Irrelevant" Chris Fagle) repeated motif.

The afterword and Notes sections give more plot information than one gets in the entire novel, so he was not very far along, 500+ pages notwithstanding. In the Notes, one finds out Wallace's plan for a Pynchon Gravity's Rainbow-like twist, where the IRS plans to gather a group of unusual workers -- some with psychic powers, some with bloodless staggering logical and intellectual abilities -- in order to maximize revenue.

It's sad because it's clearly unfinished. The organization of the material was largely done by the editor, and it's raggedy in places and too thick in others.

The several extended pieces all point to different hefts the novel might have fulfilled had Wallace finished it: the chapter that appeared in The New Yorker as the story "Backbone," about a boy training himself to lick his entire body, the 100 page high school/college memoir by "Irrelevant" Chris Fagle," the brutal 60-page late chapter IRS staff Happy Hour conversation between emotionless and uber-logical Drinian and foxy former-cutter Rand, where she opens up to him about falling in love with her husband.

Along the way, there's detailed history of the IRS, a lush, brand-named 1970s setting that sets the decade in stone, another paen to Pynchon in a capsule history of 1960s drug use, and several mesmerizing IRS worker characters who are brilliantly sketched but who never quite assume their rightful place in the narrative thrust: Steyck, the manger who as a boy is so nice and kind and fairminded he literally drives those around him to violence, Cusk, who in high school develops an unusually heavy sweating problem, Sylvanshire, a "fact psychic" who infers facts out of thin air about the history and background of people he meets, a lonely mistreated girl with psychotic tendences who has been brought up by her mother in a series of trailer parks, the author/narrator "David Foster Wallace" who is constantly arriving for his first day at the IRS Examining Center in Peoria, IL.

"The Pale King" is mentioned briefly as one of the IRS examiners' "desk names," where they have the option of a nameplate for their desks that is not their real name.

"It is the key to modern life: If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish."

"Enduring tedium over real time in a confined place is what real courage is."

"Squeezing my shoes."

The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young

A manifesto on poetry and art by one of my favorite recent poets.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro

The caption for the photo to the left (third in a series) is: Johnson at the depot to return to Washington as a Congressman. A poignant scene, given the father-son relationship. He walked alongside his mother, ahead of his father, who could not keep up, and was aboard before his father arrived. Sam started to climb up, Lyndon bent down: father and son kissed.

The Empty Family by Colm Toibin

Thursday, May 19, 2011

God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens

Driving on the Rim by Thomas McGuane

Little too wooly for me. Starts out well, and lots of funny stuff along the way, but halfway through he starts saying too much, which is just not like McGuane at his best.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Such charm at the start of this rich memoir of Patti Smith's great friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, form when they were nobodies at all to when they were the avant of the avant garde of New York City, but it weakens haflway through as Patti Smith's pretentions take over.

She knew (and to believe her, almost created) Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, Janis Joplin, and a host of other key 1960s counterculture heroes.

Yet who is she? Where are the poems? Her references to herself are jump-cut, as if she learned everything the moment someone else eventually famous affirmed it for her.

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