02 December 2014

Best books of 2014

These are the 11 best books I read in 2014. None were published in 2014. That's not 2014s fault--I'll probably read a great 2014 novel in 2019.

Fawn Brodie No Man Knows My History (1945)
Eleanor Catton The Luminaries (2013)
Jim Harrison Farmer (1976)
Patricia Highsmith The Tremor of Forgery (1969)
Thomas Mann Buddenbrooks (1901)
Rick Perlstein Nixonland (2008)
Isaac Bashevis Singer Enemies, A Love Story (1972)
Paul Theroux The Lower River (2012)
Leo Tolstoy Hadji Murat (1912)
Sarah Waters The Little Stranger (2009)
Yu Hua Brothers (2009)

01 December 2014

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story

One hears today of novels “about memory” or “of memory” and whenever I hear a contemporary American novelist talk about memory I look for the nearest open window to leap from. Nostalgia is an artist’s curse, and yet many middle-aged novelists wallow in it, name dropping events and trends and fashion and music in simple stories that go nowhere and move nobody.  
Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story is a novel of memory, of the many memories of a single man, an inveterate liar and crafty survivor named Herman Broder, late of Poland, currently of Coney Island. He’s a hustler who earns his living ghostwriting for a lazy rabbi, and his mind wanders between the big ideas of philosophers he has read or misread, and a fear of impending doom, that Nazis might be around every corner, waiting to do to him in America what they couldn't do to him in Europe.

Herman Broder has three real world problems, his three wives. Yadwiga is a dim peasant from Poland—she hid Herman from the Nazis, they became lovers and moved to America, but she is a “right shoe left foot” simpleton. Masha, Herman’s mistress, is wild and beautiful, satisfying Herman’s primitive urges like no other—but Masha has issues with herself, her mother, God, and more than a few men in her past. Then there is Tamara, Herman’s dead wife, mother of his two sons, all killed by the Nazi’s—but Tamara didn't die, and now she is in New York, seeking Herman, and perhaps some of the back and forth arguments that made her and Herman an intellectual match.

It is difficult to separate the plot from the prose in Enemies, A Love Story but they both work well, as Herman is engaged in a fight-or-flee staring match with upheaval—he worries that his lies will be found out, and of course they are, but the reactions aren’t what a reader expects; to Singer’s credit no conflict is resolved easily. 

One can read a good novel like Enemies, A Love Story many ways; it occurred to me late last night that it is a near perfect thriller parody, a dumb Lee Child novel transformed into a great work of art. It is a novel of constant action and activity, and it allows Herman and a reader little rest. It is also a tough hilarious comedy. 

23 November 2014

Denis Johnson and his new novel

Denis Johnson's The Laughing Monsters is a strange book, a first-person narration of adventures and misadventures in Africa. I suppose it is also about spies and deception, but that is a first impression--First, Second, and Third impressions of anything are usually common, stupid, and shared by others.

Half of The Laughing Monsters isn't a very good Denis Johnson novel. One thinks Johnson knows this, because the structure of the short book, over 4 parts, is a story of a story, of how a story is told, and what a narrator of a story, especially an African story, tells. Africa is one of the last places on earth where a story can determine if one lives or dies--stories matter in the bush in ways civilized societies cannot fathom.

Roland Nair is the narrator, a Dutch spy, perhaps, traveling on a US passport. He has contacts he wants to see and those he doesn't care to see. For the first two parts of novel, Nair is one a handful of shady players, along with Michael, an African of dubious origin and intent, and Davidia, Michael's Colorado-born fiancee.

Much happens in the first two parts of The Laughing Monsters and one is uncertain if one is supposed to care. The writing is base-level prose, hardly the Johnson of the brilliant Train Dreams. But then part 3 hits, and a new Nair narration takes over, with paper and pen, as he is held by Congolese army goons, and all becomes right in the world of Johnson's genius. Part 4 continues with half-close, half-distant narration, and it ties back to the first two parts, and illuminates Johnson's design to the novel--he's having us on, showing us a mad Africa in full bloom, as a westerner, as an impostor, sees it.

Part 3 and parts of part 4 are wonderful and contain Johnson at his best. The Laughing Monsters is short but not easy, and later this week I will likely have a fourth and fifth and maybe sixth impression of it.

20 November 2014

A couple Chinese brothers

Brothers by Yu Hua is becoming one of my favorite novels of the recent past. It came out in 2009 in America and it is a monster of a book, but it reads as fast and funny as Yu's previous smaller offerings, To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant. Those previous novels were filled with ribald humor, and Brothers has doubled up on both the laughs and the sorrow. This is China we are reading about.

Outside of Yu I know nothing of Chinese authors; I don't know if Chang Rae Lee or Ha Jin--names I've seen on books--are Chinese, Chinese-American, British subjects of Hong Kong, or Alabama natives. Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Lit a couple years back, and I still haven't heard anyone tell me I need to read him, but I know he's Chinese because a bunch of people who hadn't read him got upset that he won the Nobel.

Yu Hua is a terrific novelist. With Brothers he tells a story of two brothers in a fictional Chinese town in the 1960s and 70s where people are named after their occupations--Blacksmith Tong, Poet Zhao, Yanker Yu--he yanks out teeth. A third into the book at page 200, the brothers Baldy Li and Song Gang are 15 and 16 respectively. Adding Brothers to my list of Good Novels About Young People. And here's a good comprehensive review of Brothers from the LA Times in 2009.

27 October 2014

Thomas Hardy describes the Internet

The assemblage—belonging to that class of society which casts its thoughts into the form of feeling, and its feelings into the form of commotion—set to work with a remarkable confusion of purpose.
from Chapter VI of Far from the Madding Crowd

23 October 2014

The night on Farmer Oak's leased land

To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness, or by the better outlook upon space that a hill affords, or by the wind, or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin, the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilised mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoitre it is hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame.

from Chapter II of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd

17 October 2014

Noted and annotated

Been reading nonfiction nonstop, Rick Atkinson's Liberation Trilogy, and Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History, her biography of Joseph Smith, a great American hustler. Also picking through The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner's great note-filled record of Lewis Carroll's Alice books. An annotated anything--Lolita, Alice, and just released, Lovecraft--is both fiction and nonfiction, or fiction with a dash of fact.

Aktinson's trilogy is filled with endnotes, a clutter-free way to the source material, if you choose too--I don't, mostly. Brodie's Smith book is classically footnoted, with a couple robust appendixes (is that the right plural for appendix?) Gardner's Alice books are noted alongside the text, in tiny font--the main Carroll text is huge font, the book itself is large and a pleasure to read. Alfred Appel's Lolita is margin-noted and requires two book marks to properly go back and forth--bit of a hassle, but rewarding.

The new Lovecraft is of course annotated in blood and slime.

01 October 2014

Chapter 8 of "The Little Stranger"

Chapter 8 of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is terrific writing, a diversion from the mainline haunted house tale that is the whole of The Little Stranger. It's all about an older doctor realizing he has been in love with a younger woman, and things go from good to bad to worse. Below are a few paragraphs of first-rate writing:

Mindful of our filthy footprints, we went around the house to the garden door. The Hall, as usual now, was unlit, and, though the day was sunless, to move towards it was like stepping into shadow, as if its sheer, rearing walls and blank windows were drawing to themselves the last of the light from the afternoon. When Caroline had wiped her shoes on the bristle mat she paused, looking up, and I was sorry to see lines of tiredness reappearing in her face, the flesh about her eyes puckering faintly like the surface of warming milk.


Finally, at just after one, when the music had finished and the lights had come up, she reappeared at the table. She came with Brenda, both of them fresh from the dance-floor, with blurred eyes and mouths. She stood a couple of feet away from me, yawning, and plucking at the bodice of her dress to free it from the tug of moist skin beneath, exposing an edge of brassière strap at her armpit—exposing the armpit itself, a muscular hollow shadowed with fine stubble and faintly streaked with talcum. And though I had longed for her return, when she met my gaze and smiled, I felt, unaccountably, the sting of something that was almost anger, and had to turn away from her. I told her, rather stiffly, that I would fetch our things from the cloakroom, and she and Brenda went off again to the Ladies’. When they came back, still yawning, I was relieved to see that she had tidied her hair and made a neat, conventional mask of her face and throat with lipstick and powder.


But I am not Seeley. It was a long time since I had kissed a woman; years, in fact, since I had held a woman in my arms with anything other than a rather perfunctory passion. I had a brief flare of panic. Suppose I had lost the trick of it? And here was Caroline beside me, possibly as uncertain as myself, but youthful, alive, tense, expectant … At last I took my hand from the steering-wheel and placed it tentatively upon one of her feet. The toes shifted as if tickled, but apart from that she made no response. I kept the hand there for perhaps six or seven heartbeats, and then, slowly, I moved it—just moved my fingers across the fine, unresisting surface of her stocking, up over the arch of her foot and the jut of her ankle bone and into the dip of heel behind it. When again she kept quite still, I inched the hand steadily higher, until it was held in the cleft, slightly warm, slightly moist, between her calf and the back of her thigh. And then I turned and leaned towards her, putting out my other hand, meaning to catch at her shoulder and draw her face to mine. But the hand, in the darkness, found the lapel of her coat; my thumb slid just beyond the inner edge of it, and met the start of the swell of her breast. I thought she flinched, or shivered, as the thumb moved lightly over her gown. Again I heard the movement of her tongue inside her mouth, the parting of her lips, an indrawn breath.