Sunday, December 24, 2023

The Comedians by Graham Greene

Strange, second-tier Greene, but his prose style is as piercing and evocative ever.  A doomed love affair struggles for breath in the shadow of Duvalier's Haiti in the early 1960s.

Joe Gould’s Secret by Joseph Mitchell


Good long short memoir about an eccentric Greenwich Village character in the 1940s and 1950 who claimed to be writing an oral history of modern world but turned out to be doing not so much, simply revising again and again the same several chapters of his own early life. But how he was lovingly supported by hundreds of intellectuals and others in Manhattan, and cherished for his oddness.

Driven to this by my reading of the Harry Smith bio of Szwed, as Smith and Gould share many similarities.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith by John Szwed


Early Abstractions films: various soundtracks added by various people.

The Critic, Ernest Pintoff, short comedy film, Mel Brooks voiceover.

Heaven and Earth Magic.

HS Mahagonny: based on Brecht/Weill opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Compo, Seven Flute Solos:

Shirley Clarke, documentary film maker. Bridges-Go-Round, The Connection, The Cool World, Kaleidoscope (w/ HS)

HS paper airplane collection:

shape note/sacred harp records

John Fahey summary of contents of HS Anthology of Folk Music: "The evidence is in the shakedown."[169\

HS on what his collections meant: It is a way of fooling away the time, harmlessly as possible. [271]

Make a person think they think and they love you; make them think, and they hate you." [ 332]

HS on "automatic synchronization" of his films--
Fred Camper: ... as I was sitting on the floor near a stack of records, [Harry Smith] said, "Hey, you, pick a record, any record." Without looking... I passed the first record on the stack up to him. He looked at it and aid, "You idiot, not that record." [97]

Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even

Drowning: The Rescue of Flight 1421 by T.J.Newman


Cheesy, breathy, melodramatic page-turner about the intricate rescue effort of survivors on a jet that crashes moments after its takeoff from Hawaii. A handful of passengers stay inside the plane when it sinks, surviving in a precarious air bubble. (The rest of the passengers, who evacuated on the surface, drown or burn to death.)

Compelling but sort of empty and by-the-numbers characters.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa


The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares


Bizarre surreal 1940 novella by a Borges acolyte. A fugitive (a writer?) on a remote island begins seeing visions of buildings and people, and overhearing their conversations (they cannot see or hear him), and he falls in love with a woman he sees. Running off to wikipedia to figure out the rest of it.

I believe we lost immortality because we have not conquered our opposition to death; we keep insisting on the primary, rudimentary idea: that the whole body should be kept alive. We should seek to preserve only that part that has to do with consciousness. [14]

All that I have written about my life -- hopefully or with apprehension, in jest or seriously -- mortifies me. I am in a bad state of mind. It seems for a long time I have known that everything I do is wrong, and yet I have kept on the same way, stupidly, obstinately. [34]

... when one is alone it is impossible to be dead. [54]

Friday, December 08, 2023

The People Immortal by Vasiliń≠ Grossman


Vivid account of a Red Army group in Ukraine in 1943 as they finally begin to turn the tide against the Nazi invasion. Unusual, shifting pov style of narration. Grossman unknown to me, but was the first to publish acclaimed fiction about the war during the war, and was a national hero in Russia for inspiring hope in a beleaguered time.

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze


Sort of a high-class, grad school version of Jim Thompson.  The shell-shocked veteran turned criminal teams up with the femme fatale to hatched an armored car robbery, using an abandoned mine shaft as the perfect getaway/hideaway where they can also bury the evidence.

Prose style strong, at times a litttle too self-conscious and minute for my taste. But I'd recommend the book to fans of noir crime fiction.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi


Liked this, strange novel, about what a father and mother get up to when their unmarried 35-year old daughter goes on vacation to see cousins in the country for a week.

The father's antics at his former Club - his resumed drinking and gambling - are vividly drawn, in the strange male culture of turn of the century Hungary which was completely new to me.

A little Kafka-esque in its descriptive strategies of both external and internal landscapes.

He flung open His arms upon the cross, exalting human suffering in a single, heroic gesture that belonged to Him alone since the beginning of time. But His head dropped, anticipating the number indifference into which it was about to fall, His face already petrified with pain. [175]

Skylark had found it hard to get used to life on the plain, and not a day had passed without her longing to be home again. And now she was glad to be back in the town, which, with all its comforts, allowed people to forget so much, and held a promise of real solitude to those who had to be alone. [209]

Devil Makes Three by Ben Fountain


Good, but ambitious plot involves lots of sociological and political and historical backstory being brought in about the birth and struggle of Haiti. Sort of loses narrative oomph. Well-written as always with Foundation, and clearly a heroic tale (as well as effort).

Friday, November 17, 2023

Caught by Henry Green


Fascinating 1943 novel about an upper class gentleman who joins the Auxiliary Fire Service in London one year before the Blitz. Most of the novel takes place before the bombing but presages it: the protagonist leaves his wife and child in the countryside, and bunks and lives with working class men and men. Green's dialogue is exquisite: the working class phrasings and emphases are illuminating.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Seamas O'Reilly


Like this in the end, but had to get over my initial dismay that it was no Angela's Ashes. It's a non-fiction memoir of a large family in the north, the narrator's mother dies when he is five years old. It's more of a portrait of his wonderful father.

Wednesday, November 01, 2023

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy


Hemingway vs Pynchon vs classic Cormac. dash of DeLillo, sprinkle of McGuane. 

Deep sea salvage diving, quantum physics and mathematics, dogged government agents pursuing the main character, who lives off a fortune in gold coins buried at his grandmother's house, a cast of New Orleans barflies that recall an unwritten cast of grad school characters from A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. 

Fierce writing, a wandering narrative, confusing dialogue. Interesting and aggravating. 

The sections where Western's sister has long visits with the voices insides her head who present as real character - namely, "The Thalidomide Kid" - are puzzling and never really resolve for me. Even more so when Western himself is visited by The Kid [312].

The long pages of dialogue between two (or three characters) are confusing, not just in typical McCarthy style, but beyond that, as the longer conversations go on, the more the sides of the discussion seem interchangeable: each character settles into a very high-level, ironic, high-diction tone of voice.

Still, McCarthy writes like a fire when he's on.

So if you get the impression from tie to time that we're sort of winging it here so be it. The first thing is to locate the narrative line. It doesn't have to hold up in court. Start splicing in your episodes. Your anecdotals. You'll figure it out. Just remember that where there's no linear there's no delineation. Try and stay focused. Nobody's asking you to sign anything, okay? And anyway it's not like you got a lot of fallback positions. [60-61]

Listen, Ducklescence, he whispered. You will never know what the world is made of. The only thing that's certain is that it's not made of the world. As you close upon some mathematical description of reality you can't help but lose what is being described. Every inquiry displaces what is addressed. A moment in time is a fact, not a possibility. The world will take your life. But above and lastly the world does not know that you are here. You think that you understand this. But you don't. Not in your heart you don't. If you did you would be terrified. And you're not. Not yet. And now, good night. [144]

When the onset of universal night is finally acknowledged as irreversible even the 
coldest cynic will be astonished at the celerity with which every rule and stricture shoring up this creaking edifice is abandoned and every aberrancy embraced. It should be quite a spectacle. However brief. [160]

...having even read a few dozen books in common is a force more binding than blood. [161]

Even the interpretation of the positron as an electron traveling backward in time. [174]

Beauty makes promises that beauty can't keep. [204]

What, you got no questions? I thought it would be fun to have a guy inquiring about his sister's sanity from the sister's own hallucinations. [312]

No matter the magnitude of your doubts about the nature of the world you cant come up with another world without coming up with another you. [319]

Documents they'd no gift to read in a cold to loot men of their souls. [328]

I think the odds are on that we will still be here to see him wet his thumb and lean over and unscrew the sun. [368]

Why can you not bury him? Are his hands so red? Fathers are always forgiven. In the end they are forgiven. Had it been women who dragged the world through these horros there would be a bounty on them. [422]

He said that a Godless life would not prepare one for a Godless death. [434]

But that's not what's at the heart of the tale. The problem is that what drives the tale will not survive the tale. [338]

Monday, October 23, 2023

The Bee Sting by Paul Murray


Great, heavy, long, witty, and heart-breaking. And somewhat exhausting.

Willie, Dickie's gay, intellectual, brilliant friend at Trinity College, on human resistance to changes humans need to make in order to combat climate change:

... the thought of no longer being ourselves is harder for us to get our head around than the thought of being dead. [507]

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh


Dissatisfying. Long wind-up to a muted violent ending. Moshfegh can write, but to what end? In 1964 a tortured young woman lives with her alcoholic ex-cop father, while she works at a nearby boy's prison. Something rings false about the framing. Told from the woman's first person point of view, but from current time as she recollects the time as an old woman in her 70s, we find out scant things about the present time, and 1960s is sketched out sketchily and not quite believably.

The woman is awful - she hates herself (or at least the old woman hates her younger self remembered) and she hates everyone around her.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead


Really enjoyed this, a three-part cultural history of Harlem in the 1970s, following a furniture-store owner's troubles and triumphs as he dabbles in crime to supplement his income, following in his dead father's footsteps. Everybody knows everybody in Whitehead's Harlem, for good and for bad.

Friday, October 06, 2023

The End of the Road by John Barth

Been several lifetimes ago it seems since I read this as an novel as an undergraduate. Hits differently now. Very bleak, somewhat pedantic -- and yet arresting. The ethical conundrums of a love triangle playing out at a backwater community college in the early 1960s in Wicomico County, MD.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

The Chamber by John Grisham


Good but drawn-out too long. 

Grisham renders in sweeping, intimate-ish fashion the complete scope of the one-month run-up to a former Klu Klux Klanner inmate's execution, after nine years on death-row. A dozen different points of view are used -- but the effect is more broad than deep. All characters seem to think and feel in a similar manner.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Harrow by Joy Williams

 Another grim one from Joy. Unusual style, almost plotless, everything happens in the omniscient narrator's voice, and in dialogue.  An orphaned young woman ends up at an elderly retreat on the shore of a dead lake in the west someplace, as the old people plot vengeance against against a world of corporate greed and ecological neglect. Obscure. But William's prose is knotty and powerful.

Slammerkin by Emma Donogue


Really enjoyed this novel of a poor girl growing up in London in the mid 1700s, who is thrown out of her family (by her mother - "You have no mother now) and takes up prostitution to save her own life. Then she abandons that life, and heads to the tiny farming village where her mother was born, and tries to make a living as an assistant to a dress-maker. In true "naturalistic" style, though, things don't go well for a woman with nothin and no connections. Vivid writing and a very modern idiom makes this story feel contemporary.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh


I like this strange and violent book. I had disliked her MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION though I can't really remember why. But this was different.  Reminded me somewhat of THE NORTH WATER.

Lone Women by Victor Lavalle


Unusual new novel from Lavalle, whose work I've enjoyed before. Was perplexed but glad I stuck with it in the end: he somehow make a creepy supernatural thriller (with a dragon!) out of American frontier history, particularly the "lone women" land grants in Montana in the early 1900s. He takes on racism and  sexism at the same time. There's nobody else quite like him.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa


Very strange novel or memoir or prose poem or all three, about a poet in modern Ireland searching for clues about a poetess from 17th Century Ireland whom history has all but erased. I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second. First half was more of the narrator/poet's struggle with motherhood and breastfeeding and post-partum isolation and mental struggles, while second half gets more into an imagined history of old Ireland.

This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub


Liked this a lot, but I'm a sucker for time-travel books that manipulate my emotions. See Time Traveler's Wife, etc. Even the upper West Side of Manhattan milieu -- usually one of my bugbears because of its usual cliched cast of privileged white people -- comes across well. At least it refers to NYC in the 1980s!

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

The Seven Good Years by Edgar Keret


Cute but reductive. The real life Keret is much less funny and sharp and enraged than his fictional ego.

Only The Sinners Bleed by S. A. Cosby


Another solid story from Cosby. Race war simmering in a small town in southern Virginia, brought to a boil by discovery of a serial child-killer and torturer operating under religious delusions. Cosby's prose can get a little cliched, melodramatic, and predictable - and some of his character set pieces (dead mother, troubled brother, wise father, old girlfriend) are seemingly written by rote) - but he keeps his weather eye on the action and it never lets up.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Only One Left by Riley Sager

Highly contrived series of coincidences and melodramatic prose style and sometimes so coincidental as to cause confusion.  

but not without its pleasures. 

The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 So at the price of a little immersion in the family drains I had what I wanted. [105]

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi


May he have an accident shaped like an umbrella. [p. 13]

Finally reading this after owning it for almost 40 years. Collection of short "fictions" - first one, "Argon," while fascinating, is a completely off-putting journey through the narrator's family tree, mined with Yiddish and Hebrew words and puns. Started it several times and drowned in it as the first story. It's now more appealing to me, since I understand the central metaphor of the book -- and that argon, as one of the "inert" (noble/rare) gases, completely stands in for his distant relatives of whom he knew very little, except in scattered anecdotes and memories and phrases. 

The rest of the stories are marvelous and much less obscure - each concerns a chemical element in a fictional/fairy tale/historical setting.

"Nitrogen" is a strong example - about a lipstick manufacturer who hires young women as workers and insists on kissing each one eight times each morning to "test" the lipstick.

The concluding story, "Carbon," magnificently pulls it all together.

Camino Island by John Grisham


Solid but not great. I turned the pages dutifully, but the plot and milieu -- F Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, small Southern seashore bookstores, the creative writing community --is a little nauseating.

Too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.

Monday, August 07, 2023

Somebody's Fool by Richard Russo

Scratching my head on this. I love Russo's work, but don't really remember the first two FOOL novels, so this one isn't snapping into place. There is a sameness to his ironic tone that I'm finding deadening -- every character seems to hear the same omniscient sarcastic voice. Not moving me.

If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi


Mesmerizing, intricate, heavy novel about a band of Jewish partisans in Russia and Poland during the waning days of WWII.

Unbelievably moving account of the war winding down.

On the contrary, I believe it doesn't make much sense to say that one man is worth more than another. One man can be stronger than another but less wise. Or more educated but not so brave. Or more generous but also more stupid. So his value depends on what you want from him; a man can be very good at his job, and worthless if you set him to do some other job. [110]

Do you recognize us? We're the sheep of the ghetto,
Shorn for a thousand years, resigned to outrage.
We are the tailors, the scribes and the cantors,
Withered in the shadow of the cross.
Now we have learned the paths of the forest,
We have learned to shoot, and we aim straight. 
        If I'm not for myself, who will be for me?
        If not this way, how? And if not now, when?
Our brothers have gone to heaven
Through the chimneys of Sobibor and Treblinka,
They have dug themselves a grave in the air.
Only we few have survived
For the honor of our submerged people,
For revenge and to bear witness.
        If I'm not for myself, who will be for me?
        If not this way, how? And if not now, when?
We are the sons of David, the hardheaded sons of Masada.
Each of us carries in his pocket the stone
That shattered the forehead of Goliath.
Brothers, away from this Europe of graves:
Let us climb together towards the land
Where we will be men among men.
        If I'm not for myself, who will be for me?
        If not this way, how? And if not now, when?

Written by me, Martin Fontasch, about to die. Saturday 13 June 1943. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. [168]



The Confession by John Grisham


Couldn't put it down. Grisham has the thing, that knack for the last paragraph of each (short ish) chapter - he puts some torque on the story and you have to turn the page.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham


Another good one. I know a rogue lawyer. 

His philosophy: "Everyone’s awful, lawyers are the worst, cops are the second worst, criminals are kinda fun, I’m also the worst but also the greatest, so show me your tits."

They are entertaining and good company.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson


Finally read this after owning it for 20 years. More of a story than a poem. Based on myth but playing out in a contemporary setting in South America. 

Excellent and strange.

Going Zero by Anthony McCarten

Liked this. Recent novel about a contest sponsored by a digital surveillance company and the feds, they select ten random Americans and challenge them to "stay off the grid" and avoid detection for 30 days. 

Monday, July 10, 2023

If This Is a Man/The Truce by Primo Levi


This book (two books, actually) is amazing, a take on concentration camps unlike any other I've read. Levi was an Italian Jew who went to Auschwitz for the last ten months of the war. The first volume, IF THIS IS A MAN, contains his sociological, often clinical descriptions of the prison camp industry is astounding, how even with almost nothing the prisoners still had a "thriving" economy of barter and favoritism which seemed, perversely, to keep the survivors sane as 90% of the other inmates disappeared into the crematoriums. Sane in spite of the sickness, the filth, the freezing temperatures, the backbreaking labor.

The second book, THE TRUCE, follows his circuitous journey home after liberation, a winding trail through Eastern Europe and Russia which took over a year.

Thursday, July 06, 2023

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card


Annie Dunne by Sebastian Barry


Another great one. Two single women in their 60s in western Ireland care for their grand-niece and nephew one summer, and suffer spiritual torpor. And enlightenment! Barry is a stunning prose stylist. There, I've said it again.

Wednesday, July 05, 2023

Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser


from "The Artist" --

He feels it, that’s all, and that’s how he finds it. He instantly separates the things of the highest importance from the unimportant ones, leaving everything extraneous or illusory to be what it will. He can gather his thoughts in a flash, his mind lucid, his consciousness alert. He is swift to discern what is not a matter of indifference, and for this reason always has both the inclination and cause to be of good cheer. His optimism waxes along with his predisposition to dispense with worry. When others ask: “What now?” and do not know the way forward, he has already found his own. He doesn’t see his path clearly, but also doesn’t consider this absolutely necessary; he strikes out in some direction or other, and one thing leads to the next. All paths lead to lives of some sort, and that’s all he requires, for every life promises a great deal and is replete with possibilities enchantingly fulfilled. He most certainly does not overtax his mind, and rightly so. Not everything needs to be puzzled out, and racking one’s brains does not necessarily result in cleverness. A higher power punishes us when we try to be more knowledgeable than befits us. What is fitting is to trust in ourselves and the world. Who feels this better than the artist? When he was poor, he believed more than ever in his abilities; when he began to grow weary, he was urged on more powerfully still by the image and idea that it is beautiful to pull oneself together. No one understands devotion to life, nor exhaustion, better than he, nor that Nature has willed it so, and that true industry and the heartfelt wish to produce work have their source in seasons of inertia. If this isn’t a natural growth process, what else can it be? Even the fruits of the field require time to grow; enough: he senses his fate, intuits the constraints and unconstrainedness of the destiny chosen for him and makes his peace with them. Does anyone know more vividly than he what it means to be utterly satisfied with oneself while at the same time being filled with numerous dissatisfactions? Both feelings lead him ever further on his path. Finding himself at a standstill once, it occurred to him to believe that all was nonetheless well with him; and when others gave voice to the opinion that he had lost his abilities, he made a point of showing what he was capable of in the loveliest light, giving the lie to the misconceptions of those who proved incapable of sound, calm judgment. He was always cautious when it came to believing or not believing in his journey, and this preserved him from both hubris and capitulation. When his modesty elicited condescension, he still did not falter in his belief that modesty was his bedrock. Space continued to favor him, time was well-disposed, and the world was as faithful to him as he was to it, and that was all he needed to continue in his development. Always he found talent to be intimately linked to joie de vivre, ability to gaiety, and craftsmanship to human flourishing, and he proceeded accordingly, with sometimes greater, sometimes lesser success and skill. If he failed at something, he did not cast it aside, but instead let it sit for a day, then examined it again, and since he returned to it, deeming it worthy of renewed attention, it proved to be serviceable. Over time, he learned to be patient and gentle, both in life and in his workshop. He owed his happiest hours to this circumstance. Once he was great; later, seeing himself diminished, he was on the point of feeling resentment, but the gift he possessed and his need to foster unity within himself prompted him to value even this smallness until such time as he could lift himself up again. As he sat in his room one evening, just as the bells were ringing and the streets filled with people looking forward to Sunday, he made his decision. No one who strives to bring new life to something significant should be too quick to abandon the hope that he will succeed in this endeavor, for that would be a shame; but as things are, all is well.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay


Doomsdayish, apocalyptic, dystopian novel, about two gay dads and their adoped Chinese daugter in remote New Hampshire, visited by four mysterious individuals who tell them the three must sacrifice one of the three or the world will end.  Tremblay did keep me reading, but the prose is a little overgrown with detailed descriptions of gestures and the air inside the cabin and the way blood appears, etc.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman


Randy: The Full and Complete Unedited Biography and Memoir of the Amazing Life and Times of Randy S. by Mike Sacks


If I read a stupid book, does that make me stupid too?

Angels & Demons by Dan Brown


Ridiculously bald melodramatic writing style covers a hyperactive conspiracy plot over the course of about 24 hours. Still, the wealth of historical detail is pleasing.  Brown would make a great tour guide of Vatican City and Rome.

Science itself created half the problems it was trying to solve.

I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moorer


The car sped forward. Glued to the windshield, in the form of the rearview mirror, was a little landscape painting of the very recent past. [122]

But nothing was Lily's home, though he did not say this. It was not her fault that her sudden hectic love was always like that- a flash mob that emerged from nowhere, a dance that twisted out of anonymous movement, then receded back into the crowd, which was sometimes shouting, "The whole world is watching" and sometimes "Free Barabbas." [135]

Damnably unsatisfactory novel. Moore's sentences, as regularly described, are jewel-like: hilarious and bracing and perceptive. I could read them infinitely. But the stories - if I can call them that - go nowhere: a present tense narrative about a trouble relationship between a man and his suicidal female partner, who seems to die early but won't go away (or shut up), and a historical narrative conveyed in a couple of letters from a woman to her (dead?) sister, in the aftermath of the civil war. The man in the present tense seems to find a copy of the Civil War correspondence, but that's it for resonance, as far as I could tell. And the present tense tale of the man driving his (dead?) wife across the country in a car also falls flat. Or maybe I'm just bitchy. 

Anyway, endless quotable sentences. I'd pull some out and type them up here, but there are a dozen on every page. Lorrie Moore is something else.

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