Monday, December 28, 2015

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

Disappointing.  I was expected the sort of completely organic fiction of City of Bohane, with its marvelous imagination of an Ireland in the dystopian future.

Instead, Beatlebone is a treacly "what if?" narrative, as in, what if Barry could get inside John Lennon's head during his broken-down years of 1975-1978?  So we get JL's vaunted scream therapy, we get JL's memories of his beloved mother and his hated father, we get JL's public voice, punny, funny and angry, all set down in a lyrical Irish landscape of the West Coast and western islands.  We got a bizarre late chapter in which Barry writes in first person of his teasing attempts to lace his notes with the real, and a journal of his own visit to JL's supposed Irish island.  We got a late short chapter of JL speaking/singing/rhapsodizing into a microphone of his own stream of consciousness for his great lost ficitional album Beatlebone that he dreamed up on the island.

But the whole thing, frankly, was an effort to read.  Disappointed!

It does make me want to listen to JL's Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey songs.  But it does not make me want to read more Barry, for now.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Frustrating and a front-loaded effort for me, as I did not love her first prose poems book, and feel reverse-victimized as the toady privileged white male she might be demonizing (at her worst).

But I have to say that after laboring through the book,  I found it scintillating and unique.  She takes on sociology and history and psychology as her own tropes and twists them masterfully in short order.  I was moved and radicalized in a strange way.  Quite beautiful and quite unique.

Although I do wish she stop writing prose.  But what do I know?

Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.  Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please. (p. 49)

Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn't be an ambition. (p. 55)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (read by John Malkovich)

Only have way through listening to this performance of Breakfast of Champions by John Malkovich.  As a young person, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.  Later in life, I fell in love with the acting power and prowess of John Malkovich.  Perfect match, so far.  Malkovich's chewy, grumbling voice is allowing me to hear the book with new ears, after trying to re-read it several years ago and finding it bland and vacuous.

video snippet of Malkovich reading

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth

To write [the necessary qualities are]: massive self-approval, a thick skin and the conviction of the importance of 'some urgent conception of the universe and the state o fman', which, though inevitably 'arrant toash', is necessary to give the writer the stubborn impetus to continue. (summary and quotes from 'Round the Point,' unpublished Larkin dialectical playlet)

I enjoyed this book but that is probably because I love all things Larkin.  Booth's analysis of the poems are long-winded and sometimes unnecessary, and he is much too fond of the adjective "less-deceived," also the title of one of Larkin's pivotal books.

I liked learning that the original draft ending to "High Windows" instead of reading "and is endless" read "and fucking piss."

Larkin and Monica Jones defaced a first-edition copy of Iris Murdoch's 1956 novel, The Flight from the Enchanter, and Booth criticize's their many hours of "sterile boredom" that must have led them to do this, 1300 alterations in all.  Well, I think it's funny.

Next, Please

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much time they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork prinked,
Each rope distinct,

Flagged, and the figurehead wit golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it's
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake

No waters breed or break.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles

Very moving first novel by the author of Want Not Want Not, a superlative second novel.  Recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg.

Pretty marvelous book.  Less marvelously too long, though.  Still, couldn't (literally) put it down.

But I finished it with equal parts exhaustion and sadness at seeing the story end.

It was so long that whole sections swam out of the key-frame of my attention, and when characters and incidents and meaningful "things" seem to ring a bell, I was too tired to go back and tried to find them and fit them back on the puzzle.

It's a tremendous meaty accomplishment of a place -- New York City -- and a time -- 1975-1977 -- that will endure.  Hallberg's descriptive power, his endless playful grasp of lingo, jingo and jive astonished me page after page.  But, too, they seem to impress the author to the point where he grew lazy in editing himself -- more is not always better in prose.

The rich family at the center of the narrative -- the Hamilton-Sweeneys -- were not nearly as interesting to me as the outliers -- Charlie "The Prophet," Samantha, Richard G., and the detective.

Despite the (almost awkward) inclusion of Mercer, as an important black character, the novel does seem to suffer from the great stifling condition of privileged-neurotic-white-folks-who-sound-the-same-when-they-think.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Molloy by Samuel Beckett

There I am then back in the saddle, in my numbed heart a prick of misgiving, like one dying of cancer obliged to consult a dentist.

All roads were right for me, a wrong road was an event, for me.

For in me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking othing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further one.

But these were mere crises, and what are crises compared to all that never stops, knows neither ebb nor flow, its surface leaden above infernal depths.

We underestimate this little hole, it seems to me, we call it the arsehol and affect to despise it.  But is it not rather the true portal of of our being and the celebrated mouth no more than the kitchen-door.  Nothing goes in, or so little, that is not rejected on the spot, or very nearly. Almost everything revolts it that comes from without and what comes from within does not seem to receive a very warm welcome either.  Are these not significant facts.  Time will tell.

It's a strange thing.  I don't like men, and I don't like animals.  As for God, he is beginning to disgust me.

Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea.

Don't wait to be hunted to hide, that was always my motto.

Intense and intensely beautiful and sad, and hugely blackly comic.  Parallels to my beloved THE THIRD POLICEMAN by Flann O'Brien abound.  For investigation.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Sort of cool imagining of near-future when a Google-like company has seized control of almost the complete world.  There is forward momentum throughout and its an easy read.

Many flaws though.  Awful dialogue that sounds mostly like editorials, thin characterizations (particularly of the narrator, Mae), gigantically obvious and silly metaphors (the Aquarium replicating the bottom of the Mariana Trench).

I was increasingly reminded of Dosteovsky's Underground Man who seems embodied by the hapless, martyred Mercer who wants only to be left alone to construct his chandeliers out of antlers.  Following on that, then, Mae is the proto-typcial Above-Ground Woman, who seeks to be completely known to society, completely "Transparent."

Thursday, October 08, 2015

At Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald

Perhaps not as unsettling and certainly not as personal as Offshore, At Freddie's is still a wry, actuely observed triumph about the 1960s theatre world in Britain, children, love and a host of other things.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Straight White Male by John Niven

Sheer enjoyment.  Some one-dimensional characters, but the portrayal of the protagonist, an alcoholic sex maniac screenwriter and one-time novelist, as he spirals out of control and attempts a mid-life course correction is dynamite:  funny, touching, verbose, and maudlin.  But always funny.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee

Hefty biography of the beloved Penelope Fitzgerald, whose eight compact novels she served up late in her life stand as the epitome of a certain preferred (by me) brand of 20th century British fiction.  The novels are pungent, concise, brilliant narratives that illustrate by ommission, irony and silence.

I'm thankful Lee spends so much time on each novel, sending me back to re-read each one with her inflated examination of the plots and characters, settings and sources.

If anything, Lee might inflate them too much-- she might take something away from the strength of the novels of themselves by explaining their silences.  But Lee is at least aware of this double-edged sword.

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

 Even better to re-read, after reading the chapters in A LIFE explaining how Penelope Fitzgerald indeed DID LIVE ON A BOAT on the Thames for two years in the early 1960s.

Her omissions -- her silences -- her concern for the failed lives of individuals -- the irony and comedy of her persistent narrative voice -- thrilling.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald

Second one I've read.  Pure addictive pleasure.  Guys writes a mean sentence.  Throwback sexuality to the bad old days.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon

Starts out promisingly but loses steam.  Still entertaining.  Sort of Gary Shteyngard for the middle school folks.  Oo, burn.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

I couldn't put this book down for five days and tore through it avidly.  Franzen writes so fluidly and with such intelligence that 550 pages went by like 50.  No kidding.  And that is rare indeed.  But is it in the end enough of an accomplishment?  To be five pounds of pure high-brow entertainment?

For the characters in Purity are monotonically neurotic and unloveable.

a la Dickens, the opening, central character, Pip (short somehow for "Purity") is an orphan without knowledge of her fortune.

Franzen searches for the zeitgeist of our times, and comes up with the Internet. The moral seems to be that in a world where all information is global and transparent and available to all, we know less about ourselves.

He can write with great emotion but has chosen a somewhat rarefied (and loathesome) group of characters to bring to life -- the mothers and fathers pictured, almost without fail, are satanically bad parents.

natural description extraordinary

for a novel that centers on "high tech," and Wiki-Leaks-like network infiltration and security hijacking, the novel is remarkably un-savvy about tech, relying on "googling" and "databases" and "face-recognition software" in the most general usage for most of its sleuthing.

relationship between Pip and her mother (Annabel), her eventual father (Tom), and the leader of the SunShine Project (Andreas Wolf)

Andreas Wolf's childhood in East Germany and his relationship with Annagret

themes:  power, feminism, secrecy vs. openness

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

A Tan and Sandy Silence by John D. MacDonald

What a terrific story.  My first JDM, after a lifetime spent mentally scoffing my father's adoration of Travis McGree.  Beautiful prose, no non-memorable scenes, real voices.  Capsule histories of Florida real estate in the 60s and 70s, the island of Grenada, construction minutiate -- and a great whodunit with marvelous torture, seduction and redemption episodes.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Thursday, August 13, 2015

I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, by David Shields and Caleb Powell

Annoying book seemingly based on admiration of the film My Dinner With Andre (also annoying).  Looking forward to the (probably annoying) film by James Franco starring the two authors.  Trite literary criticism inflated by authors' weird swollen senses of self-importance.  Finished reading it in three hours so no harm, no foul, as Shields might say.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

What her pitiful look saw, at that early time, in her father, in her sister, in her brother, in the jail; how much, or how little of the wretched truth it pleased God to make visible to her; lies hidden with many mysteries. It is
enough that she was inspired to be something which was not what the rest were, and to be that something, different and laborious, for the sake of the rest. Inspired? Yes. Shall we speak of the inspiration of a poet or a
priest, and not of the heart impelled by love and self-devotion to the lowliest work in the lowliest way of life!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

My Struggle, Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

You know too little and it doesn't exist.  You know too much and it doesn't exist.  Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.  That is what writing is about.  Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself.  There, that is writing's location and aim.  But how to get there?

We understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves.

What did I like about volume 1 of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the IT book of the year or past year or so?

Well, I can tell you what I didn’t like.  I didn’t like the plot: almost nothing happens.

I didn’t like some of the characters, they were indistinguishable from other characters, and had impenetrable Swedish names.

The setting was hard for me to follow:  in the first half, it seem to rely heavily on the difference between Sweden and Norway, which my naïve American idiocy unconsciously had always assumed were just different names for the same (sort of) country.

So what did I like?

Dunno, but I read the whole damn thing and found it half compelling, half boring.

There is so much almost unmediated physical description: half the time I found it boring, half the time I thought it was overwhelming strong, making things, stuff, landscape and sky, into almost living characters themselves.

It seems to be a coming of age story, then the story of the aftermath of a difficult father’s death.

from James Woods New Yorker profile: "But there is also a simplicity, an openness, and an innocence in his relation to life, and thus in his relation to the reader. Where many contemporary writers would reflexively turn to irony, Knausgaard is intense and utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties, unafraid to appear naïve or awkward. Although his sentences are long and loose, they are not cutely or aimlessly digressive: truth is repeatedly being struck at, not chatted up."

The Martian by Andy Weir

Great book, listened to it on cd in the car, made 375 miles almost a joy, even brought it inside the house on Thursday to finish it from the office.  Come for plot, suffer through some scientific details, and stay for the great first person narrator's voice.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Terrific book about the search for a serial child killer in Stalinist Russia. How to catch a criminal the state will not even admit exists?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored by John Lydon

Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore by Linda Leavell

Critics and Connoisseurs
Marianne Moore
There is a great amount of poetry in unconscious
    fastidiousness.  Certain Ming
        products, imperial floor coverings of coach-
    wheel yellow, are well enough in their way but I have seen something
            that I like better--a
                mere childish attempt to make an imperfectly bal-
                        lasted animal stand up,
                similar determination to make a pup
                    eat his meat from the plate.
I remember a swan under the willows of Oxford,
    with flamingo-colored, maple-
        leaflike feet.  It reconnoitered like a battle-
    ship.  Disbelief and conscious fastidiousness were
            ingredients in its
                disinclination to move.  Finally its hardihood was
                        not proof against its
                proclivity to more fully appreciate such bits
                    of food as the stream
bore counter to it; it made away with what I gave it
    to eat.  I have seen this swan and
        I have seen you; I have seen ambition without
    understanding it in a variety of forms.  Happening to stand
            by an ant-hill, I have
                seen a fastidious ant carrying a stick north, south,
                        east, west, till it turned on
                itself, struck out from the flower bed into the lawn,
                    and returned to the point
From which it had started.  Then abandoning the stick as
    useless and overtaxing its
        jaws with a particle of whitewash--pill-like but
    heavy--it again went throught the same course of procedure.
                        What is
            there in being able
                to say that one has dominated the stream in an attitude of
                in proving that one has had the experience
                    of carrying a stick?


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

A quiet, slow-gathering story of a recently-widowed woman, Nora Webster, and how she gradually surfaces back into life after her husband's death.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Mason's Retreat by Christopher Tilghman

Excellent novel, set on Maryland's Eastern Shore, during the run-up to WWII.  Brought to mind "Howard's End" by E.M. Forster.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

great sprawling book about a woman, her husband who is stricken with Alzheimers, and their son.  tremendously moving.  just what you think you know everything, you realize you know nothing, and that is a book about living.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Dan Carlin's Hardcore History

Addictive for the lengthy commute. So far I've listened to:

Countdown to Armageddon (5 parts, WWI)

Radical Thoughts (on the evolution of the idea of a "Red Menace" in America)

Thor's Angels (4-hourson European tribes after the fall of the Roman empire in 472 and in the ensuing 1000 years, what used to be known as "The Dark Ages")

Logical Insanity (a history of aerial bombing between 1895 and Hiroshima)

Wrath of the Khans I & II (long series on Genghis Khan)

Brothers Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On you? by George Clinton

Great, couldn't put it down, drives me back to the gaps in my pfunk musical library.

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