Monday, December 30, 2019

Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten

from the NY Times review, a quote from Jonathan Swift: "Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”

The opening section -- and its paired section very close to the end-- are in Trump's voice, first-person, and the first section led me to believe this was going to be an entirely different book. The lengthy middle of the book is a less interesting story of "researching the end of the internet" after civilization has largely been destroyed by nuclear weapons, after the internet has mysteriously gone down for four days, wrecking the global market and triggering the ensuing maelstrom. Well, Trump actually presses the button.

Enjoyable but strange. The Trump sections - particularly the first - were stunning. I'm impressed overall with Doten's work.

...Trump is a symptom of the internet, of American sickness on the internet, he's an internet creation, this avatar of white regressive blowhard resentment...

Cucktard, ashtray fags. Those words, that time.

They say that every film is a documentary of the actors in it, and the actors all bad, in every movie, they have always been bad...

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Other End of the Line by Andrea Camilleri

My introduction to this Sicilian novelist, who died this past July. He apparently dictated this book out loud, as he had gone blind. Camilleri has a nice, colorful touch with the detective genre -- his descriptions of cafe food and meals left in the oven by the detective Montalbano's housekeeper bring slices of the Sicilian culture vividly to life. And his plot -- the murder of an attractive and engaging local tailoress with a pair of fabric shears -- keeps deepening as one goes along, without becoming too fanciful or complex.

Monday, December 09, 2019

The Plotters by Un-Su Kim

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

Starts out promisingly enough, if you're a fan of Lerner's brainy prose. But either I missed something, or he pulled some punches with the plot (that I also missed) since the second half and ending felt flat to me.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Thirteen by Steve Cavanaugh

Unputdownable if totally a genre piece. You don't need more to know than the blurb: The serial killer isn't on trial. He's on the jury."

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

If she seems sometimes to write the same novel again and again, it's never without something new and different -- and this one I find as affecting as any or her previous work.

It reminders me of Angela's Ashes more than anything else.

The close reading and description of the nuns is fantastic -- and their voices remind me of Richard Russo's great short story, "The Whore's Daughter."

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Water Dance by Ta-Nehisi Coates

very slow beginning but gave it the benefit of my the doubt, because I enjoyed Coates non-fiction books so much.

But ultimately, closed the books after getting not even halfway through. He writes beautifully and grandly, but core elements of fiction -- distinctive characters, a compelling plot line -- are missing.

Coates seems to assume we are familiar with all of the usual stuff of slave narratives, and that he doesn't have to re-hash that. But the mystery at the core of the book -- what magical powers the narrator possess -- had still not been clear to me by page 150, and I have up trying to care.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Success by Martin Amis

One of my favorites of his, along with MONEY and EXPERIENCE. A little less excited after re-reading, though. His style remains breathless and brilliant and over the top. Much to love. But the incest and sex stuff is borderline icky.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Milkman by Anna Burns

Got through 150 pages, and thought it rather brilliant, if taxing. She reminds me of Beckett, but that, in the end, was what did me in.  Too hard.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Finally reading this, at age 58. My brother is incredulous that I did not read it in high school, as he thought everyone did. An incredible book. How can a 16 year old be expected to get anything out of it though?

Literally couldn't put it down, and it went fast.  Some of the "interlude" chapters are not as compelling, but the whole narrative has an intense pacing and compression, covering as it does a matter of weeks or perhaps a couple months. Deaths, desertions, still births.

Tom stood looking in. Ma was heavy, but not fat; thick with child-bearing and work. She wore a loose Mother Hubbard of gray cloth in which there had once been colored flowers, but the color was washed out now, so that the small flowered pattern was only a little lighter gray than the back- ground, The dress came down to her ankles, and her strong. broad, bare feet moved quickly and deftly over the floor. Her thin, steel-gray hair was gathered in a sparse wispy knot at the back of her head. Strong, freckled arms were bare to the elbow, and her hands were chubby and delicate, like those of a plump little girl She looked out into the sunshine. Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her or it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone. (chapter 8)

They sat and looked at it and burned it into their memories. How’ll it be not to know what land’s outside the door? How if you wake up in the night and know-and know the willow tree's not there? Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you. The pain on that mattress there-that dreadful pain-that’s you. (chapter 9)

The houses were left vacant on the land, and the land was vacant because of this. Only the tractor sheds of corrugated iron, silver and gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline and oil, the disks of the plows shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractorand the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight. And when a horse stops work and goes into the bam there is a life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay* and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse. Then the corrugated iron doors are closed and the tractor man drives home to town, perhaps twenty miles away, and he need not come back for weeks or months, for the tractor is dead. And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation. And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation. For nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates; and the length of fiber in the cotton Is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis. The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land that is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself. When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and his home is not the land. (chapter 11)

Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your ears and with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of your hand on the gear-shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses; for a change of tone, a variation of rhythm may mean— a week here? That rattle— that’s tappets. Don’t hurt a 1 bit. Tappets can rattle till Jesus comes again without no harm. But that thudding as the car moves along— can’t hear that— just kind of feel it. Maybe oil isn’t getting someplace. Maybe a bearing’s startin’ to go. Jesus, if it’s a bearing, what’ll we do? Money’s goin’ fast. (chapter 12)

And always, if he had a little money, a man could get drunk. The hard edges gone, and the warmth. Then there was no loneliness, for a man could people his brain with friends, and he could find his enemies and destroy them. Sitting in a ditch, the earth grew soft under him. Failures dulled and the future was no threat. And hunger did not skulk about, but the world was soft and easy, and a man could reach the place he started for. The stars came down wonderfully close and the sky was soft. Death was a friend, and sleep was death’s brother. The old times came back— a girl with pretty feet, who danced one time at home— a horse— a long time ago. A horse and a saddle. And the leather was carved. When was that? Oughta to find a girl to talk to. That’s nice. Might lay with her, too. But warm here. And the stars down so close, and sadness and pleasure so close together, really the same thing. Like to stay drunk all the time. Who says it’s bad? Who dares to say it’s bad? Preachers— but they got their own kinda drunkenness. Thin, barren women, but they’re too miserable to know. Reformers— but they don’t bite deep enough into living to know. No— the stars are close and dear and I have joined the brotherhood of the worlds. And everything’s holy— everything, even me.
(chapter 23)

the final haunting image, of Rose of Sharon who'd just lost her stillborn baby, breast-feeding the dying man in the blackened barn, with a smile on her face (chapter 30)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Chances Are... by Richard Russo

I'm a big fan of Russo, but this one was unsatisfying. For a thick book, it's awful thin.  Russo's characteristic irony and humor lack power. The plots twists in the second half are unsatisfying. The 1960s and early 1970s American culture is not really fleshed out. The three main males characters-- Teddy, Micky and Lincoln -- are thinly done, particularly Teddy. Jacy, their common love interest, isn't vivid to me. The real estate plot line-- part Howards End and part Richard Ford-- is also thin.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

underwhelming at first, but slowly gathers steam.  felt a little more researched (obviously) than The Underground Railroad.  In the end, though, it satisfies, through a neat and appropriate narrative trick of point of view.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam

Astonishing book. What starts out as one side of a correspondence between two former neighbors becomes a deeply lyrical, desperate attempt by the narrator to puzzle through and retain her sanity. One forgets very quickly that one is reading letters, and instead enters a vividly recalled and cast memoir of a troubled life and marriage and mind.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Friday Black, Stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Cool.  The story "The Era" could be by George Saunders himself. "lark Street" even more so, and alarmingly like a story I've started about a sensate fetus attaching itself to a family, albeit a fetus from outer space.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon

Pretty great, if thickly laid on in spots, THE PORPOISE re-imagines the different historical versions of the Antiochus/Pericles myth, centering on a family broken apart by a mother's dead, a father's violent abuse of their daughter, and the daughter attempts to flee her fate.  Throw in an adventurous young man who attempts to save her, and you've got plots and settings for days.

Haddon is ambitious and writes beautifully, so that many times I didn't know where I was, or which version of the myth I was in, and it mostly didn't matter.

The Shakespeare chapter, though stunningly rendered, seems a bit out of place, relating as it does the story of Shakespeare and his dissolute Pericles co-author, the pimp and playwright George Wilkins, reuniting after their deaths for a boat trip to nowhere.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Really admired this book, a slow cooker about a boy and girl who become friends in high school and stay friends until the end of university, with the relationship deepening, fading, re-appearing, and evolving often along the way. Rooney's two main characters think and speak in an emotionally complex manner the whole way.  At first, I doubted the probability that teenagers could even come across that way, mentally or verbally, but she convinces me by the end of the book.

Good Behavior by Molly Keane

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Inland by Tea Obreht

Great book.  Arizona territory in 1893.  A conflicted women awaits the return of her travelling husband and two of her teen aged songs, while watching over her senile mother in law, her younger son and an addled/visionary working girl.

Sort of Cormac McCarthy crossed with some Lonesome Dove-era Larry McMurtry.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney

Sort of Gone Girl meets Machines Like Me, but less well-written than either. Intriguing plot though.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Another powerhouse book.  Morrison's razor-sharp prose, drawing poetic strength from pitch-perfect dialogue, is a moral density the likes of which I've never witnessed before.  Truly a giant of American literature in the past fifty years -- possibly THE giant. Giantess, even.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

There is no bottom to this book, which I first read as a junior in high school and just re-read to mark Toni Morrison's passing. What the reader suspects (as a high school junior) to be the symbols and archetypes of the novel stay firmly grounded as people, places, things happening in a world where the miraculous and the fantastic breed with the real flesh and agony.

He became a plain on which, like the other cowboys and Indians in the movies, she and her husband fought. Each one befuddled by the values of the other. Each one convinced of his own purity and outraged by the idiocy he saw in the other.She was the Indian, of course, and lost her land, her customs, her integrity to the cowboy and became a spread-eagled footstool resigned to her fate and holding fast to tiny irrelevant defiances.

Guitar on FDR and white people: "What I’m saying is, under certain conditions they would all do it. And under the same circumstances we would not. So it doesn’t matter that some of them haven’t done it. I listen. I read. And now I know that they know it too. They know they are unnatural. Their writers and artists have been saying it for years. Telling them they are unnatural, telling them they are depraved. They call it tragedy. In the movies they call it adventure. It’s just depravity that they try to make glorious, natural. But it ain’t. The disease they have is in their blood, in the structure of their chromosomes."

People behaved much better, were more polite, more understanding when Milkman was drunk. The alcohol didn’t change him at all, but it had a tremendous impact on whomever he saw while he was under its influence. They looked better, never spoke above a whisper, and when they touched him, even to throw him out of the house party because he had peed in the kitchen sink, or when they picked his pockets as he dozed on a bench at the bus station, they were gentle, loving.

Apparently he thought he deserved only to be loved--from a distance, though--and given what he wanted. And in return he would be . . . what? Pleasant? Generous? Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain; share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Up Against It: A Screenplay for the Beatles by Joe Orton

Just saw A HARD DAY'S NIGHT again so was thinking of this fateful final creation of Joe Orton's. Sort of silly really, but I still like it, as I do all things Orton.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

"Do Nothing Marvell Would Not Do": Remembering Professor Mary Kinzie

[In May of 2019, I was thrilled when my friend and Northwestern University Department of English Senior Lecturer Brian Bouldrey contacted me to ask if I would write a short memoir about studying poetry with Professor Mary Kinzie, who would retire that month.]

In 1980, almost 40 years ago, I studied with Mary Kinzie for two short years. But her effect on my life and my writing has been astounding, though: she asked the right questions of me, and challenged me, and pointed me toward many poems and poets who have been right here with me almost every day since then.

When we read Elizabeth Bishop, I transcribed inside the cover of my The Complete Poems Mary’s suggestions for what to keep in mind: Note her use of the conjunction “and”;  how she immediately establishes a visible landscape and is extremely descriptive, but how her outrageous images are meant to help readers, not to show off; how she absolutely finishes a thought; her “refusal of the literary”; how she uses repetition to glue herself to an idea; her childishness, her self-correcting style, her good manners.

The seeds she planted in me grew up – she might be appalled at how the plant has tilted, and some of the colors and shapes it has taken on – but I consider her the monumental mover of my mind during my undergraduate years.

I was attracted to form but at 19 years old was a firm communicant in the Church of the Romantic Ejaculate – my writing was holy, and the poem as first-struck was a sacred relic and to be preserved as such. Mary taught me how form flexed but must be cared for; to revise with intent; to change what the draft poem was not, in most cases, in my eager and largely dreadful work; to finish a thought or moment or abandon it; to be deadly efficient and finely honest.

She was stern and brilliant and methodical, but also had a pungent, memorable wit, particularly in her written comments: I remember from her daily poems assignment list for three Marvellian-tetrameter stanzas: “Formally, do nothing Marvell would not do.” “The danger of alliteration, according to Gross, is ‘consonantal clang.’” Her note on my Auden imitation was, “You’ll have to have a clearer plot (i.e., mythology) and an array of details more telling (and more easy to stick into an iambic pentameter line) than a DISHWASHER.”

But she taught me to expect more of myself, as she always did: she noted on my journal entry on a Yeats poem, “You should be cross with yourself over this irrelevant entry.” 

I determined to do everything she said to do, even if I couldn’t understand very much of it. It was like learning a tricky piano piece: you just kept going through it again and again, and note by chord by bar, it improved, and your hands warmed to the pleasure of your ears hearing the code in front of you begin approach the sound you wanted.

After I left Northwestern, I continued to pay attention to Mary: via her volumes of poetry, her reviews in APR, and eventually in her collected criticism and essays, her epic A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. In the back of Summers of Vietnam I scrawled the words I had never heard before: tarn, fardels, chitin, faience, morrices, tmesis, clerestory, colfox, cok brake, calor, ghostwheat. She refused to stop teaching me, from a distance.

I watched her own formalism retreat over time, but the poems expand and astonish me with their emotional and narrative effect. “Reading an Old Poem of Mine” and “Lunar Eclipse”– I almost memorized them. Again, it was mostly beyond me, but I kept writing, thinking, reading:

I tear back all I know till I don't know it,
and I can see the jagged
flicker at the core
prior to understanding,
tearing thought down into pieces
that sit about oddly under a different light,
strange, hard, anonymous.
(from “Lunar Frost” by Mary Kinzie)

At the same time, I partly blame Mary’s rigor for driving me away from anything to do with academic study. My lazy soul took ten years to go back and get my MFA. During that time, something loosened in me, in reaction to Mary’s exercises: my mind was suddenly brimming with unassigned poems. But even as I started drifting from formal verse, something had also tightened: there was always a formidable ghost of form.

And my very first published poem in 1988 was a revision of a daily poem syllabics assignment– in 1981 Mary had noted, “This is close to being a perfectly realized poem.” She wanted more in the middle of the poem and a new title – it took me eight years to add two lines and change the title. True to me, it’s about a lazy soul, but true to Mary, it’s well-wrought.


Outside the window it is evening.
Since morning I’ve watched the shadows change
From pointing this way to pointing that,
Combing the tall lime grass of the lawn.
It now glows dark olive, still uncut.
I’ve planned all day long what I would do
All day long, so haven’t done a thing.
The temptation to move slides further
Away even as I reach for it.
Perhaps today was not meant for acts
But for the gradual notation
Of shadows that will never return—
Not exactly, at least, as before.

New Age Magazine was pleased to have it, and I hoped they moved plenty o’ vitamins and healing stones as a result. They’d never know how hard it was to write – and how much of what Mary Kinzie taught me in class still clanged clear across the years since I’d seen her. And continues to. Thank you, Mary! And enjoy your redeployment.

The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

WOW.  It's something of the dialect vernacular of Eugene O'Neill's sea plays, crossed with a muderously serious Damian Runyon, crossed again with the effortless depth of character in Bellow's Adventures of Augie March.

He looked like a man who had never seen a cloud. (72)

Sophie: If I get any luckier I'll be the luckiest woman in the cemetery. (73)

He was too dear to her: into everything he did she must read some secret hatred of herself. (82)

Violet: Lies are just a poor man's pennies. (84)

Violet: So it was up to me to show him he was somebody all by hisself-- that's the first thing a woman got to do for a man. 'N of course there's no sense tryin' to prove somethin' like that standin' up. The least a girl owes herself is to be compfortable about it. (85)

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Country Girl by Edna O'Briend

She knew everybody, she did everything, she wrote about most of it.

Feminist, risk-taker, rule-breaker.  Barhopping with Brando and Mailer, dropping acid with Laing.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Conviction by Denise Mina

Burned through this in 24 hours.  While not her best book, it's beyond readable and should have been called CONFECTION.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren by Colin Asher

Terrific book on Nelson Algren, his childhood, his meteroric rise in prominence as a novelist, his puzzling retreat as a journalist.

On bullfighting: “It’s always a shutout for the bull.”

We are all members of one another. Algren, The Man With The Golden Gun

From his 1957 essay “Ain’t Nobody on My Side?”:

Surely never before has any people lived so tidily in the midst of such psychological disorder. Never has any people deodorized, sanitized, germproofed, cellophaned and hygienized itself so thoroughly, and still remained stuck with the sense of something dead under the house. Never have so many two-baths-a-day people gone to so many analysts to find out how to quit washing their hands. Never have so many analysts made appointments with other analysts. How can we be so satisfied that God is on our side, and at the same time be so apprehensive lest he be not?

No other people, I suspect, has set itself a moral code so rigid, while applying it so flexibly. Surely nowhere before has any people possessed such a superfluity of physical luxuries companioned by such a dearth of emotional necessities. Never has any people been so completely at the mercy of its own appliances.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Big Bang by David Bowman

Sort of amazing monumental book.  What he's done is take a cast of historical characters from 1950 to 1963 (but with generous casts in time before and after, to establish some history and to layer more irony by reporting on the future), all of which characterizing is eventually pointing at November 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas.

These charcters include JFK and Jackie Kennedy, Aristole Onasis and Jackie's sister, Richard Nixon, the Vietnamese political and military leadership, Howard Hunt, the erstwhile CIA misadventur who eventually bumbled into Watergate, authors like William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller and his wife Marilyn Monroe, noted baby doctor and author Benjamin Spock and his wife, TV personality Ed Sullivan.  And literally dozens more.

He builds richly detailed personal lives for all these historical characters.  Some of it sounds like it's actually historically true, but this seems to become less and less important the more richly detailed the interior lives become.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Intriguing true-crime ish novel, abounding with details about the Kamatchka peninsula in the Russian Far East.

two girls go missing in the first chapter, and we don't see or hear from them until the final chapter.  in between, over the course of the year, we do submerge deeply into lives of a dozen or so residents whose lives have been touched by the girls' disappearance in small and larger ways. the isolation, the hopelessness, the hope, the national and ethnic frustrations of these people are bracingly delivered by Julia Phillips piercing, empathetic prose.


Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

another good one. it's not enough for the novel to cover a menage a trois between two humans and a robot, a buried crime involving rape, murder and a non-rape.  It also contains an intellectual and ethical history of the development of robotics and computers, an alternate history of the 20th century that includes the survival of Alan Turing, JFK and the defeat of Reagan in 1980, as well as an alternate conclusion to Britain's Falkland Islands gambit.

hard to put down. some of the plot machinations seems a bit facile and quickly-established, and I could do without McEwan's constant interlude marker ("and then we made love") but hard to argue with a novel that does so much in so little space.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken

I liked it but found it a bit slow going.  In a world where everything seems eccentric -- in a novel were everything seems eccentric -- the eccentric begins to become a bit... normal.

A woman found sleeping in a Massachusetts graveyard establishes a candlestick bowling alley that is later determined to be inhabited by ghosts, both real and literary.

Proof of God? Proof was in the world, and the way you visited the world was on foot... Your walking was a devotion. (44)

LuEtta had recently decided she would be a wonder instead of a beauty.  She had seen beauties go mad in middle age, as their beauty turned less live and more monumental, beauty still but mostly to mark the space where greater beauty once had been. But wondrous was wondrous, even when you outgrew it.

Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos

Monday, May 06, 2019

Fear by Bob Woodward

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Compelling.  Multiple points of view, multiple time frames, putting together a tormented family history of murder and treachery.  Falters a bit at the end, but some very interesting swings of sympathy with characters you thought you knew well.  And some interesting clinical explanations on the psychology of memory and personality.

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