Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

Mailer's splashdown as a novelist, a WWII novel he wrote when he was 24.   Awesomely precocious, covering about three dozen points of view and beautifully set down.  Gore Vidal prissily panned it, in his usual sharp words:  "...informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as smudged carbons of a Dos Passos work."

It is much, more better than that, although it is remniscient of Dos Passos.  For a 25 year old to have written it in 18 months, it's astonishing.

His gelid eyes were very blue... he was efficient and strong and usually empty and his main cast of mind was a superior contempt toward nearly all other mean.  He hated weakness and he loved practically nothing.  There was a crude unformed vision in his soul but he was rarely conscious of it.

Yeah.  And an anger would work in him.  They had torn at each other once, had felt sick when they close together and other people were with them.  Now, in sleep their bodies intruded; there was always a heavy limb in the way.  And the nights together working on them, this new change, this living together between them like a heavy dull weight, washing dishes and mouthing familiar kisses.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano

Down Thunder Road: The Making of Bruce Springsteen by Marc Eliot with the participation of Mike Appel

"with the participation of Mike Appel" indeed.  Allegedly setting straight the issue of the monumental lawsuit between Bruce Springsteen and his manager-cum-producer Mike Appel, which prohibited Springsteen from recording for two years in 1976-1978,  Interesting, as are all things Springsteen to me, but the thought of Mike Appel claiming some part of Springsteen's mind-boggling career, even if it's just a fraction, is ridiculous.  Keep your money, Mike, and shut your hole.

Ninety-nine Stories of God by Joy Williams

 Meh.  What's the big deal?  The stories are short and inconsequential.  It's like she wishes she was South American or something-- pitched parables that lack magic. So what if she has death in her heart?  Joy Williams needs to cook with a little more gas than this.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Goethe: The Poet and the Age, Vol1, The Poetry of Desire by Nicholas Boyle

For a long time I looked for a wife; I looked,  and found only whores. In the end I picked you up, little whore, and discovered a wife.

Well, I might have loved boys too; but girls are what I prefer. If I tire of one as a girl, I can still use her as a girl.

Wanted:  a small dog that neither growls nor bites; can eat broken glass and can shit diamonds.

When I look at the words of the masters, I see what they did; when I look at my own bits and pieces, I see what I ought to have done.

A quiet scholar once left a large party and went home.  He was asked, 'How did you like it?' 'If they were books,' he said, 'I would not read them.'

The Lime Twig by John Hawkes

startling 1961 novel, more of an extended prose poem than a detective narrative, which is how it's framed.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Faithful Place by Tana French

Another one from Tana French, whose Broken Harbor I also very much enjoyed.

A police procedural that moves into a family history, and the drama of a mystery in the past that slowly unravels and explains alot of the present.

Masterful.  Almost more literary fiction than detective genre.  Would like to see her write outside detective structure -- and maybe she already has?

Friday, October 07, 2016

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Sailed through this, enjoying it all.   That said, the first 150 pages are best: something about his childhood and adolescence, and the Freehold/Jersey Shore years rings more true than his professional narrative.  Maybe he's more guarded, since he became very famous very quickly, and was plagued by fame (without riches) for the first ten years of his celebrity.

I liked his splendid summary about legendary rock stars and their early deaths - "Aging is scary but fascinating."  His summary?  "The exit in a blaze of glory is bullshit."(p. 214)  His analysis about learning the limitations of his own singing voice and transcending them was also great (p.  494)

His wise decision to seek analysis to help him through depression does not make the most interesting reading:  there is a lot of inner-child speak and other junk.

Later in the book, he assumes his more bloviated gospel-preacher voice, and tends to philosophize generally and use some of his more obvious song metaphors, rather than provide details. Still, for a notoriously private individual who perversely gives so much of himself publically in performance, the book showed me important stuff in his life.

the "Chapter and verse" spotify playlist is great - not as much for the Springsteen songs themselves (who hasn't heard them? and a million times?) as for the 100 or so songs by other artists that were crucial to him.


Monday, September 12, 2016

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A heavy book-- the second half really picks up.

It's heavy because it threatens to be so many other books -- an immigrant experience book, a war book, a spy book -- on the way in the end to be a much more philosophical book about existence and doubleness and memory.

And a truly pentrating look at the past fifty years from inside a Vietnamese mind.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Straight Man by Richard Russo

Funny as ever fourth time around.  Well, perhaps a tad more painful.  But maybe that makes it more funny? William of Occam would probably disagree.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

great sprawling multigenerational novel of the Ghosh family of Calcutta.  Mukherjee writes brilliant, close description of both the natural world and the inner emotional lives of his characters.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

great worldview but a little lame on characters and plot.   teeming with great ideas.  quick and easy to read.  easy to see why it's a favorite of adolescents.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh

Exceedingly well-written, burnished totally boring novel about fracking and its effect on persons, peoples, communities.  There's something about that evenly-spread "American" third person omniscient narrator voice that I loathe, mixed in with pious liberal journalistic info.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute.  What is urgent is not urgent for ever, but only ephemerally.  All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, like itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing.  Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future.  So we live:  a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecpatured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.
[from Under the Net]

Friday, June 10, 2016

Trouble Boys: The True Adventures of The Replacements by Bob Mehr

"I guess I wore a plaid shirt, and yes, I played real loud, but Nirvana sounds to me like Boston with a hair up its ass." Paul Westerberg.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo

Pretty great sequel to Nobody's Fool.  Takes it's time revving up, but second half is pure delight, hard to put down.  Making Police Chief Raymer the central character this time around changes the whole world of Bath Russo originally created, you see it differently through and through.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis


for and after Gwendolyn Brooks
for and after the Kitchenette Building

We meet – sometimes – between the dry hours,
Between clefts in the involuntary plan,
Refusing to think of rent or food – how
Civic the slick to satisfied from man.

And democratic. A Lucky Strike each, we
Sponge each other off, while what’s grayed
In and gray slinks ashamed down the drain.
No need to articulate great restraint,

No need to see each other’s mouth lip
The obvious. Giddy. Fingers garnished
With fumes of onions and garlic, I slip
Back into my shift then watch her hands – wordless –

Reattach her stockings to the martyred
Rubber moons wavering at her garter.

Robin Coste Lewis

Monday, March 28, 2016

Vintage Stuff by Tom Sharpe

so-so.  first half strong, second half falters. as the line goes from Bad Santa, "They can't all be winners, kid."

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Great Pursuit by Thom Sharpe

Another winner, this time squarely in the sights is the world of authorship, publishing -- and penmanship. All farce-y and crazy until the last 30 pages, when it takes on a new serious weight of its own and Sharpe pulls some Borges-ian tricks out.  Mirrors, copies of copies, posthumous pre-quel diaries by dead men.  Has to be read to be believed. Profoundly funny.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Anger's my meat; I sup upon myself,
And so shall starve with feeding.

Groff writes terrific brainy evocative prose.  Seems incapable of less than a shining sentence.

The cabdriver, his nose besponged by pores, looked at her for a long while in the rearview mirror and asked her if she was all right.  When she didn't answer, he said soothingly, "You may cry here, cabbage.  Cry as much as you wish.  It is no hardship to watch a pretty woman cry."

Overwhelming, at times though, in how rich the outer and inner lives of her characters seem.  Mathilde, for one:  a super-sweet character:

She did mind something she never said out loud:  she'd wished her husband was better at what he chose to do.

"And she can fuck herself lingeringly with a white-hot pitchfork.  In her dark shit-star of an asshole," Mathilde said.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe

Not his best, but still gets it done.  A send-up of English academics and the Cambridge scene.  Little topsy-turvey plot action.  Excellent early scene where graduate student fills two gross of condoms with gas from his dorm room meter and tries to stuff them up the chimney.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

What was true was that reading and writing about how the greatest utopia men had ever had within their reach had been perverted, diving into the catacombs of a story that seemed more like divine punishment than the work of men drunk with power, eager for control, and with pretensions of historical transcendence, I had learned that true human grandeur lay in the practice of kindness without conditions, in the capacity of giving to those who had nothing, but not what we have left over but rather a part of what little we have -- giving until it hurts without practicing the deceitful philosophy of forcing others to accept our concepts of good and truth because (we believe) they're the only possible ones and because, besides, they should be grateful for what we give them, even when they didn't ask for it.

This massive, towering novel – ostensibly about the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940 by a disgruntled Spanish nationalist – is really about the festering and implosion of Soviet Communism over 50 years.

Three separate storylines cover the 50 years, back and forth, across three continents – a failed Cuban writer who meets a strange ailing man on the beach in Cuba in the late 1990s, the Spanish Communist, Ramon Cortazer, who mortally wounded Trotsky with an ice hatchet, and Trotsky himself, the intellectual original Politburo member who fell out with Stalin in 1925 and was exiled from Russia.

The style – a length, discursive, need I say dialectical style – can be bruising.  Apparently the translator took pains to make it sound like the original Cuban vernacular in which it was written, so dialogue in particular sometimes features some whacked-out syntax decisions.  Long, long compound and complex sentences.

To me it was an enormously educational book (assuming it’s factual) on the evolution of Soviet Communism, Trotsky’s role in digressing from Stalin’s party-line model (which argued for a Soviet-only communist system) and tacking back to Marx’s original model which called for an international worker’s revolution.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders (author) and Lane Smith (illustrator)

Odd little book by an author I like a lot (Saunders) and an illustrator I like too (The Stinky Cheese Man.)

Beautiful color illustrations,  text is a little baffling, in that Saunders way.  Not really enough room for him to make his usual dramatic satirical argument.  Suppose it's an allegory about climate change, or political interdependence.  Un clear.

But entertaining!

A Free State by Tom Piazza

Interesting premise and framing to this runaway slave narrative.  But I quickly lost interest in the pulse-less prose.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Throwback by Tom Sharpe

Delicious violent British farce about a man from the fells who won't give up his property.  Has to be read to be believed.  And some great mock-ballads!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

Interesting, funny at times, a text that unfolds at several levels, including a sort of reverse chronological revelation, a series of black and white photos, oblique quotations that open each section of the book, an author's note explaining her collaborative composition technique, and a translator's appendix that is a chronology of "real events" intertwined with a timeline of the main character of the novel's actions.

Interesting, but not rivetting.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

[Signet Classic, 1995.  Photo is from original publication, cover illustration by a child, his editor's son? lover's son?]

I have reached the limits of endurance.  My back is to the wall; I can retreat no further.  As far as history goes I am dead.  If there is something beyond I shall have to bounce back.  I have found God, but he is insufficient.  I am only spiritually dead.  Physically I am alive.  Morally I am free.  The world which I have departed is a menagerie.  The dawn is breaking on a new world, a jungle world in which the lean spirits roam with sharp claws.  If I am a hyena I am a lean and hungry one:  I go forth to fatten myself.

Wowsa wowsa wowsa! what a book.  At infrequent times irritating and a slog, at more frequent other times a glorious prose poem.  The prose is first-rate throughout.  As a novel, it lacks a plot, and the characters tend to run together.  But the narrator's voice is unimpeachable, a modulated brilliant scream against existence that by its very beauty argues the opposite. It is much a time and place (Paris, 1932-1934) that I will ever get to know.  Published in France in 1934 (the year my mother was born) and only published in the US in 1961 (the year I was born), it appeared in bootleg versions around the world immediately and had a great effect.  It's not the 1940s Paris of Hemingway -- it's the weak-currency, shit-smeared version of Paris in the early 1930s.  And Paris is the star character, in all her glory and decay, her civilization and her madness.

I have taken my time and dogeared many pages and will take care to re-type them here, just for the beauty of the sentences.  And the quotes are long:  Miller was not an epithet-er, but a spinner of great paragraphs.

"'This fucking business is bad, Endree,' he says.  'But I will give you a word that will always make you lucky; you must say it every day, over and over, a million times you must say it.  It is the best word there is, Endree... say it now...OOMAHARUMOOMA!'

'No Endree... like this... OOMAHARUMOOMA!'
'No, Endree... like this...'
...but with that the murky light, the botchy print, the tattered cover, the jigjagged page, the fumbling fingers, the foxtrotting fleas, the lie-a-bed lice, the scum on his tongue, the drop in his eye, the lump in his throat, the drink in his pottle, the itch in his palm, the wail of his wind, the grief from his breath, the fog of his brainfag,, the tic of his conscience, the height of his rage, the gush of his fundament, the fire in his gorge, the tickle of his tail, the rats in his garret, the hullabaloo and the dust in his ears, since it took him a month to steal a march, he was hardset to memorize more than a word a week."

[on Van Norden]:  In a sense Van Norden is mad, of that I am convinced.  His one fear is to be left alone, and this fear is so deep and so persistent that even when he is on top of a woman, even when he has welded himself to her, he cannot escape the prison which he has created for himself.  

You can be brilliant sometimes, when you're drunk, but brilliance is out of place in the proofreading department... Just the same it's hard to talk to a man when you have nothing in common with him; you betray yourself, even if you use only monosyllabic words.  He knew god-damn well, the boss, that I didn't take the least bit of interest in his yarns; and yet, explain it how you will, it gave him pleasure to wean me away from my dreams and fill me full of dates and historical events.  It was his way of taking revenge, I suppose.  [p. 168-169]

One can live without friends, as one can live without love, or even without money, that supposed sine qua non. One can live in Paris – I discovered that! – on just grief and anguish. A bitter nourishment - perhaps the best there is for some people.  At any rate, I had not yet come to the end of my rope.  I was only flirting with disaster.  I had time and sentiment enough to spare to peep into other people's lives, to dally with the dread stuff of romance which, however morbid it may be, when it is wrapped between the covers of a book, seems deliciously remote and anonymous. [p. 172]

So true is it that I am almost tempted to say: "Show me a man who over-elaborates and I will show you a great man!" What is called their "over-elaboration" is my meat: it is the sign of the struggle, it is struggle itself with all the fibers clinging to it, the very aura and ambiance of the discordant spirit. And when you show me a man who expresses himself perfectly I will not say that he is not great, but I will say that I am unattracted . . . . I miss the cloying qualities. When I reflect that the task which the artist implicitly sets himself is to overthrow existing values, to make of the chaos about him an order which is his own, to sow strife and ferment so that by the emotional release those who are dead may be restored to life, then it is that I run with joy to the great imperfect ones, their confusion nourishes me, their stuttering is like divine music to my ears. [p. 232]

This is from the marvelous penultimate scene in the novel, where the narrator has gone to Dijon as an unpaid English tutor at a monastery school:  Everything frozen tight as scum, the mind locked and rimed with frost, and through the melancholy bales of chitter-wit the choking gargle of louse-eaten saints.  White I am and wrapped in wool, swaddled, fettered, ham-strung, but in this I have no part.  White to the bone, but with a cold alkali base, with saffron-tipped fingers.  White, aye, but no brother of learning, no Catholic heart.  White and ruthless, as the men before me who sailed out of the Elbe.  I look to the sea, to the sky, to what is unintelligible and distantly near. [page 255]

Going back in a flash over the women I've known, it's like a chain which I've forged out of my own misery.  Each one bound to the other .  A fear of living separate, of staying born.  The door of the womb always on the latch.  Dread and longing.  Deep in the blood the pull of Paradise.  The beyond.  Always the beyond.  It must have all started with the navel.  They cut the umbilical cord, give your a slap on the ass, and presto! you're out in the world, adrift, a ship without a rudder.  You look at the stars and then you look at your navel.  You grow eyes everywhere -- in the armpits, between your lips, in the roots of your hair, on the soles of your feet.  What is distant becomes near, what is near becomes distant.  Inner-outer, a constant flux, a shedding of skins,a turning inside out.  You drift around like that for years and years, until you find yourself in the dead center, and there you slowly rot, slowly crumble to pieces, get dispersed again.  Only your name remains. (260)

George Orwell on Henry Miller, from "Inside the Whale":  Miller is simply a hard-boiled person talking about life, an ordinary American businessman with intellectual courage and a gift for words.  It is perhaps significant that he looks exactly like everyone's idea of an American businessman.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Why Are We In Vietnam? by Norman Mailer

with the smell of the North on a September night, a fine tricky clean smell, like a fine nervce washed in alcohol and lightly powdered to get the rut of flesh off.

Copyright 1967.  Thomas Pynchon must have read this book, since Gravity's Rainbow seems to have gotten its central voice from the main character, D.J. Jethroe, the jiving, brilliant, clowning 18 year old consciousness that narrates this psychic hurricane of a novel.  Vietnam not mentioned until the very last sentences, it is instead about American male mad lust, violent charisma and energy, seething through DJ's mind as he sits at a farewell banquet, about to ship off to Vietnam (hot damn) and rememebering his hunting trip to Alaska two years old with his best friend and his father.

An experience of a book.  A little nauseasting, a lotta bewildering, but a reading that is lived.

Blott on the Landscape by Tom Sharpe

Monday, January 04, 2016

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello

Just a tremendous book.  Took me forever to read because I kept turning over corners of pages to go seek out the live sets/jazz songs he was talking about on YouTube, but it's unspeakably lively, the whole thing.

What a songwriter, what a poet, what a musician, what a presence!  It's such a boon, such a gift, when a music-maker and performer as tremendous as Costello also has the extreme page-bent and deigns to write the story of his life in song!

Early on, in my mind, I nit-picked some of his choices of what to tell and how to tell it -- his family history, though relevant and well-written (as the whole book is), impede the pop-reader's progress a bit.

But this is a guy who has spend the last 40 years on stage singing all these songs, and grabbing the time when he's not performing TO WRITE THE MARVELOUS THINGS.

So it's really small of ME to question his narrative arc, as so much of his life was spent in the (for me) higher realm of making music (aka, speaking to the angels).

The book drove me back to some seriously deep cuts-- and I thought I was well-represented, as my 'iTunes" data shows I have 34 albums and 460 songs, totalling '1 day' of total listening, but ECs generous, brilliant writing has shown me I have but scratched the surface of his gift to the world.

Postscript:  book gets annoying in last 200 pages.  EC begins quoting his lyrics at greater length, as they become less well-known to me.  His inserted "short stories" are also baffling. His tendency to narrate his encounter with every celebrity becomes irritating.  To me his first three albums tower over the rest of the work, the first album and the next two with the Attractions.  Then he enters a "pop" period that goes on forever and ever, that features his voice and heavily arranged music.  In the late 80s he has another good string with Blood and Chocolate, and King of America.  Spike is half great.  Then from the 90s on he becomes bewildering -- classical music, jazz and near jazz, opera music.  His album, THE RIVER IN REVERSE, has great Toussaint songs but they suffer as sung by EC-- his voice, which he seems to have grown more enamored with over time, is not very great.  he seems to have stopped sounding like himself after King of America, and trying to assume a proto-liberal American voice that was not his own.  Just saying.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

Interesting, if academic and insular, French novel about a France of the not-distant future that has been politically taken over by a Muslim majority, and changes its culture to reflect that: women cannot work and must be veiled, men can take multiple wives, conversion to Islam helps one in professional advancement.

The narrator, a 40-ish French academic whose speciality is Huymans, spends most of the book in intellectual musing and conversation with other scholars about the political history of  France, and its literature.

It's satiric, in that the narrator is a narrow, selfish, bourgeois most interested in lazing about and having sexual one-off liaisions, and finds himself gradually drawn into Muslim conversion himself, when he realizes it suit his rather self-centered, sexually rapacious lifestyle.

In the article for Oumma, Rediger raised the question whether Islam had been chosen for world domination.  In the end he answered yes.  He hardly bothered with Western societies, since to him they seemed to obviously doomed (liberal individualism triumphed as long as it undermined intermediate structures such as nations, corporations, castes, but when it attacked that ultimate social structure, the family, and thus the birthrate, it signed its own death warrant; Muslim dominance was a foregone conclusion.

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