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!

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