Friday, December 28, 2018

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Tremendously moving, tremendously informing. First one of Powers' novels that I've finish, and well worth it.

Not for the faint of heart. It is a BIG book, long and dense.  There are two sides to the novel: there's a third person authorial voice that layers on incredible reams of facts about trees and plants and science, and then there are a handful of human characters who start out wholly separated and end up merging in radical protest against logging and commercial forces destroying the American forest.

The one problem for me is that the tree-speaking tends to dwarf the human speaking.

The humans move at lightning pace, compared to trees which have been around for thousands of years, in some cases.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, stories by Ben Fountain

The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem

A bit underwhelming.  Haven't kept up with Lethem, but this is a sort of pale Pynchon-lite story.  The female narrator's voice is unconvincing at best, and sappy at worst.  the-day-after-trump-is-elected setting is invoked occasionally, but never means much.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

The Secret Place by Tana French

Another winner from powerhouse Tana French.  So much atmosphere, so little time! This time the setting is a posh girls school outside Dublin, and the murder on the grounds of a young man from a neighboring posh boys school.  About adolescence, about femininity, about friend, but of course also about murder.

Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath (foreword by Frieda Hughes)

 Expanded version of Plath's larger manuscript she was working on when she died.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Dead Hour by Denise Mina

Another winner by Mina.  Paddy Meehan, investigative reporter, comes of age.  The "wee hen" gives better than she gets, and gets the story, and gets something else, as we learn in the cliff-hanging last sentence.

It's a shame Mina gets marketed as crime fiction -- she's a wonderful, close observer of character and class, with a sharp eye and tongue, this time setting down in 1984 Glasgow, with an Irish-Catholic take on the decline of the Scottish city.

Monday, November 12, 2018

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

Terrific predecessor to Boyne's 2017 stunner THE HEART'S INVISIBLE FURIES.  This one takes on the scandal and coverup of Catholic clergy sexual abuse, but through the eyes of an "innocent" priest and the narrative of his family's life. Boyne is remarkably sensitive in painting a family, inside and out. The plot of who-touched-whom and who's-to-blame is good and holds one's interest, but it's the characters in the end who are indelible.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach

A dense, kaleidoscopic cultural history and biography of Franz Kafka, the final book in the three-volume series by Reiner Stach, but covering the early years, as legal hassling delayed Stach's work until a settlement was reached with Kafka (or Brod) estate on critical scholarly resources.

Kafka's surreal "otherworldly" style is seen hatching in turn of the century Prague, where, as a Jew, he struggled with linguistic, nationalistic and religious ghetto-ization as a native Czech.

I didn't know he was so fond of swimming, too.

Kafka's favorite painting on his first visit to Paris, a portrait of Voltaire still in his sleeping cap with his trousers only half-on.

Statue of Kafka in Prague

Kafka and his favorites sister, Ottla

Hurlyburly by David Rabe

 as astonishing as ever to re-read. bleak and hilarious.  word-storms.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman by Paul Mariani

The Final Voicemails and Letters from Max by Max Ritvo

The LETTERS volume was something else, although I could have done with a little less Ruhl. 

I 'm struggling with the VOICEMAILS poems, though struck with lines all over the place.  Also take it personally that he was adopted so avidly by Louise Gluck and Sarah Ruhl, as a tragic Keatsian figure who was dying throughout his short writing career.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Witch Elm by Tana French

Nice start and pretty gripping finish -- but a boggy huge middle sinks the newest from one of my favorite crime writers.

A novel that buries its crime and detection strengths in an over-embroidered family saga.  Plus, a strange echo of Forster's HOWARD'S END.

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.

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