Bought a bunch of stuff from Quimby’s in Chicago recently, including a copy of Punk Planet #1 from 1994. I’d actually sent a guy I’d met in an AOL chatroom five dollars by mail in 1997, hoping he would fulfill his promise of sending me that first issue. I’d been collecting issues of the magazine since somewhere around 1996, and needed the first one to be totally up to date.
He never sent it to me. His screen name (NationXStates) disappeared, and until a week ago, I never attained issue #1.
Also got a copy of The Logan Square Literary Review’s Winter issue in the Quimby’s order. It’s a great looking zine with a hodgepodge of material to read, including a recipe for braised pork belly with pineapple chutney paired with a monkshood cocktail.
I took a break from P.G. Wodehouse this week. Yesterday I did find myself listening to a number of songs from the musicals he collaborated on with Jerome Kern, because it was Kern’s birthday, and I wanted to celebrate.
Also read my friend Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen (Harper Perennial), and I loved it. I knew I would, and not because Adam is a good friend or somebody who has read at a handful of Vol. 1 events. I know this may come up sounding like nepotism, but Adam’s one of my favorite writers, and I really hope everybody picks up his book when it comes out in March.
The other book I read this week was Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius while waiting at the DMV, and thought it was a gorgeous novella. Delius’ description of Rome during World War Two is really what makes this book for me, but it is interesting to see somebody actually write about a German citizen living in Europe during those times without trying to make justifications or issue any apologies for the actions of the country as a whole.
Other than that, I’ve been waking up every morning to J Dilla’s Jay Stay Paid, and there’s not much else to report on.
I’m reading a Canadian copy of Sheila Heti’s forthcoming-in-the-US novel How Should A Person Be. Since I borrowed the copy I’m reading and don’t want to wreck it with my marginalia, I’m filling pages and pages of old-fashioned notebooks with my thoughts. I’m wondering if I want to write about it. Maybe!
I thought this review of The Map and the Territory was pretty on point. I nodded at a lot of the reviewer’s points, but I’m kinder than she is to the novel. I like Houellebecq more than I should. Probably because I like curmudgeons, though Michel is not nearly as charming as Maurice Sendak in these Colbertinterviews. I want to hang out with Maurice! Houellebecq most likely would hate my guts in a less entertaining way.
Speaking of men who hate women, over the weekend I saw the Fincher Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for some masochistic reason. I hated it to the point of rage, but I also loved watching it. Morally questionable and somewhat irresponsible cinema of seduction is still the cinema of seduction, ultimately. It still draws you in even though you’re rolling your eyes.
Following our coverage of National Book Award nominees, I started Teju Cole’s Open City. Much has been made in reviews of the book’s “lack of plot”. What is meant by this is that the narrator wanders Manhattan and has adventures that initially feel arbitrary. Yet it quickly becomes clear that wandering Manhattan is as much a plot as any Swiss watch Le Carre or Hammett novel, and that Cole is a sharp and calculating writer. City‘s Nigerian psych student Julius is a model flaneur for our time. He’s got the clicking camera eye of Isherwood, the sensual swoon of Sentimental Education, and Robert Altman’s thirst for the cacophony of public places. The book’s story then feels less like an anti-plot and more the fulfillment of Aristotle’s idea of a hero’s quest: a sequence of events that may read as arbitrary as they happen, but by tale’s end feel as though they could not have played out any other way. Perhaps most impressive for our cause is the way Julius’ own Indexing enters the book: throughout his chronicled weekend he reads and ruminates on Barthes, digs the crates for Mahler, and attends a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y. Like the Freaks chant of old: “One of us! One of us!”
Finally, for no other reason than it speaks to me this week: narcissism puts great stress on the body.
So hey: the Tournament of Books looms. Prior to this week, I had read a few of the nominees: Green Girl, 1Q84, The Tiger’s Wife, and Lightning Rods. This time out, I vowed to read more, if not all sixteen. And so it began…
Nathacha Appanah’s The Last Brother, did a lot of things well: evoking its narrator’s traumatic childhood (the loss of two of his brothers, the abusive nature of his father) in the 1940s, and telling the story of a number of Jews who escape the horrors of Europe only to be detained in a refugee camp in Mauritius. Appanah subtly and impressively fills in the gaps of her narrator’s life between his childhood and his waning years, but something — for me — seemed missing in the book as a whole. Alternately: it’s both an informative exploration of a little-discussed historical event and a sharply rendered account of a bleak childhood, but the sum of the two never quite achieved the weight that it should have.
Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending is a gut-punch of a book: short and taut and ultimately devastating. It’s about memory and self-deception; to say too much more would be to spoil large chunks of what’s to follow. It’s a deliberately-written, precisely controlled work, and it may be my favorite of the ToB nominees I’ve read so far. (Either this or Lightning Rods, I’d say.) There’s a reference late in the book to a character reading a Stefan Zweig novel; I’m not familiar enough with Zweig’s body of work to see if Barnes is riffing on something specific here, but I’m certainly curious.
I also took in the brutality of Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time, where the characters seem to be either sociopaths, horrifically repressed, or victims. We see…maybe one healthy relationship, and that ends in tears (and more); there’s also a clown who has a short relationship with a wheelchair-bound guitar player, and exits the book largely because, one assumes, he’s far too well-adjusted to carry on for too long with a sociopath. Pollock does a fine job of evoking specific times and places with a few key words. As I approached the ending, I was worried that his conclusion might be wholly nihilistic, but the book ultimately ends on a different note, and it’s the better for it.
Also in the “Tournament of Books nominees I’m reading” camp: I’m partway through Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder as I write this. More on that next week.
Also in the week’s reading were a pair from NYRB Classics: Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. Georges Simenon’s Dirty Snow. Hrabal’s is a sprawling, rambling monologue featuring war, delirium, and lasciviousness; Simenon’s novel is a brutal case in which amorality flings itself headlong against political repression. It’s harrowing and haunting and brilliantly written.