A roundup of things consumed by our editors.
Right now the pile of books on my desk includes The Common issue no. 2, Divorcer by Gary Lutz, and Matthew Henriksen’s Ordinary Sun. They’re all slimmer in size, so I’m hoping to finish them all this week (Lutz’s especially so Toby I and I can discuss it), and also start putting together my vacation reading list. My yearly time off is coming up, and the stress trying to pick a handful of books to bring along kills me each time. If I don’t pick wisely, I’m stuck with shitty books for ten days, and then what do I do with myself?
I finished Sara Levine’s fantastic Treasure Island!!!, and I expect to have some sort of conversation with Ms. Levine coming up in the very near future, so I won’t spoil it much for you. I will mention that her protagonist’s hilarious lack of giving a shit about anybody else really made me think of a 21st century, Jewish, pirate book obsessed Ignatius J. Reilly. I then chased that down by re-reading Money by Martin Amis. I read it five years ago and I’ve been obsessed with re-reading it ever since. I’m not exactly sure why I decided to pick it off my shelf, but I’m glad I did.
Gaslight Anthem played New Jersey yesterday, so a lot of Facebook people were talking about them. I listen to them, then I work backwards and blast plenty of The Replacements, The Boss, The Clash, etc. It’s the sort of downward spiral I really like, but with the Greatest 3-Minute Stories About the 90s event coming up this Weds. (shameless plug), I should probably start listening to the Gin Blossoms or something like that to get ready.
This week’s reading ranged from kitchen-sink realism to the deeply surreal. After receiving it via WORD’s “WORD To Your Mailbox” program, I delved into Christopher Boucher’s novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. There’s a nod to Richard Brautigan early on, which makes sense given Boucher’s playfulness with language and imagery. And yet the story here is one that’s intensely serious, with an eye towards failure, death, and the frustrations of creativity.
Also in the realms of the surreal: Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, in which a pair of students find themselves staying at a pension at which obsession and barely sublimated violence abounds. As I proceeded through its narrative, half familiar tropes and half surrenders to the irrational, I found myself recalling Ann Quin’s Berg. Then characters in Cosmos began shouting, “Berg!” at one another, providing evidence for some sort of late-60s surrealistic hivemind at work.
After reading Anthonly Olcott’s article about the novels of Andrey Kurkov in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I picked up and read Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin. It’s a sometimes surreal, sometimes paranoid book with a fine vein of absurdity (i.e. the main character’s loyal pet penguin), which nonetheless begets some of the novel’s most moving moments. It’s less a crime novel per se than a fine violence and unknowability. (I suspect Olcott’s article will prompt some other Russian-lit purchases in the coming weeks and months as well — Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog has my interest particularly piqued.) Also in the vein of Russian literature (or meditations on it), I closed out the week by re-reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed for WORD’s Classics Book Group, and found it as compelling as I had on the first go-round. Given that Batuman’s been a regular presence in The New Yorker as of late, I’m hoping that another collection of her work isn’t far off.
The lit critic wormhole beckons! After picking and choosing selections from James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel – along with some of Wood’s magazine essays published over the last ten years on the state of modern writing and its “hysterical realism” – I found myself enamored with Zadie Smith’s reply in the Guardian UK, dated October 13th, 2001. Theirs is a great volleyed debate back and forth of ideas on not only what feels genuine when read, but how a writer arrives at great moments. I especially like that they find different aims in writers they mutually love – Bellow, Nabokov, Larkin, Woolf – and that each served them differently at a time in world history that was nothing if not in frequent, confusing hysterics.
It was also Wood who reminded me that Don Quixote is a very old and important book that I’d never read before. After devouring much of it in one setting last weekend I can say it is, perhaps more than any novel I’ve read this year, a total how-was-this-always-here-without-me revelation. What’s immediate about the work is what an utterly modern character Quixote is: his flaws are eerily modern, like those of an aging blogger with a Twitter addiction, if Twitter existed only as 140-character soliloquies in our subconscious. Consider this passage from the book’s opening pages, a veritable Indexing circa 1604:
“You must know, then, that the above-named gentleman whenever he was at leisure (which was mostly all the year round) gave himself up to reading books of chivalry with such ardour and avidity that he almost entirely neglected the pursuit of his field-sports, and even the management of his property; and to such a pitch did his eagerness and infatuation go that he sold many an acre of tillageland to buy books of chivalry to read, and brought home as many of them as he could get.”
Further recs for your eyeballs and eardrums: the cerulean orb that ominously hovers overhead in frenemy-of-Nazis Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. The two mahogany orbs resting in Charlotte Gainsbourg’s eye sockets in the same film. Julie Klausner’s How Was Your Week? – always unique in its earnest inquiry and ability to make pop culture chat into something weird – emerging from former tech woes and growing pains into one of the better podcasts, like some hilarious, bedazzled parade float. Plus the chance to hear new music from Kate Bush and The Fall, or to simply crack a window and listen to the soothing sounds of winter rain. Why celebrate winter rain you ask? Because snow, True Believer, will eventually get old too.