The other day I read Marquez’ Of Love and Other Demons for a book club discussion, which made me think about how I’ve actually read quite a lot of Marquez.* And I’ve liked almost everything of his that I’ve read (well, except for Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, which is a book that even Marquez thinks is fairly unspectacular). But I haven’t really loved any of it. Like, you’ll rarely hear me mention Marquez on this blog. And I’d never think to cite him as an influence. In truth, I rarely think about his work.
That’s not a problem with him, of course. And it’s not a problem with me, either. He just exists in that liminal place where you put great and very entertaining authors who are, nonetheless, somehow not exactly the right thing for you. I have alot of authors like this (as does everyone). What’s strange is that I frequently read alot of books by these authors. I think that if I really like one work by an author, then I am liable to be disappointed by their lesser work (for instance, I love George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Mill On The Floss, but after striking out with Daniel Deronda, I’ve been disinclined to read anything else by her). And if I don’t like an author’s work, then of course I’m not going to read anything else by them. But if I sort-of love it, then I’ll keep reading more and more of their stuff, because I know it’ll be good and I know it won’t disappoint me and I know there’s a chance that I’ll really love the next one.
Authors that fall into this category for me are:
Vladimir Nabokov –I’ve read nine of his works. I even read Ada! And almost all of them were excellent. But I don’t love him. Again, who can say why? Maybe it’s because there’s a coldness to his work that I don’t necessarily respond to. Of the novels, I’d say that the one I liked best was Lolita. It’s one of the few books that I am someday going to reread. I read it when I was just out of college, and I suspect that if I reread, I’d like it even more.
J.M. Coetzee – I’ve read five of his novels. All of them were powerful and fantastic and alienating experiences. And all of those experiences were sterile. They didn’t inspire me or make me want to go out and read more of his work. They just sort of sat there at the bottom of my mind.
*One Hundred Years of Solitude; The General In His Labyrinth; No One Comes For The Colonel; A Chronicle of a Death Foretold; News of a Kidnapping; Clandestine in Chile; Story of A Shipwrecked Sailor; Of Love and Other Demons; and a number of his short stories. But who’s keeping track, right?
I’ve been in kind of a bad mood lately (one that, thankfully, seems to have at least temporarily abated), and it was that kind of mood where I both really wanted to read something—television really held no appeal for me—but was also disgusted by everything that I tried to read. I must’ve read the first pages of at least three dozen books. Especially Graham Greene novels. I kept thinking that I wanted to read Graham Greene, only to discover that I really did not want to be reading Graham Greene. I guess what I really wanted was to be able to go back in time and read The Power And The Glory for the first time. Anyway, the books I did end up reading were fascinating to me—they’re about as different, in terms of comfort reading, as one can imagine. And, yet, they all had their consolations.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – A few days ago, I and a bunch of the MFA peeps were talking about Nick Hornby in the context of chicklit. He’s the perfect example of an author who would be thrown into the chick-lit ghetto if he was a woman. However, since he’s a man, he can write fluffy, slangy books about youngish people who live in urban environments and have aspirational jobs and relationship troubles. And it’s okay, because it’s literature (another example: J.D. Salinger). Anyway, I’m not one to ignore an author just because he’s the beneficiary of a sexist literary establishment (after all, I want to benefit from that establishment myself someday). I quite enjoyed this novel. I’d seen the movie previously (it’s about a record store owner whose girlfriend breaks up with him because he is immature…alright, I know…that’s pretty much what all male coming-of-age stories are about…) But the novel has some nuances that were absent from the book. For instance, even after they get back together, the main character’s relationship with his girlfriend remains a bit limp and sad. The whole novel was surprisingly sad, actually. The main character has a very empty, friendless life. And it doesn’t feel like much is ever going to fill it up. The book was easy to read and made me feel a lot better.
The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee – I really didn’t want to read this book. It was the absolute opposite of what I thought comfort-reading should be. It’s a very quiet, very spare, very beautifully-written account of a somewhat-stupid man who takes his mother out into the war-wracked countryside (so she can go back to the farm where she grew up). But I read the first page. And then I read the second page. And then I kept reading pages. And before I knew it I was like a tenth of the way into the book. I kept feeling like I shouldn’t be reading it. This was not what I wanted at the moment at all! But I couldn’t stop. It had a weird immersive quality to it. I didn’t quite enjoy it, not in the same way that I enjoyed the humorous situations in high fidelity. It was more like…it created its own world: a very quiet and a very still world. It wasn’t necessarily the world that I wanted to be, but it was such a novel experience to be in this other place that I couldn’t stop reading. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I feel like every time I read a Coetzee novel, I close it and think, “That was amazing” and then have no desire to read another one. He’s someone who lies in wait, quietly, until I need him.
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin – It’s weird to read a classic horror novel, because the novel doesn’t know that it’s a classic. It doesn’t know that even nine year olds know the twist. It thinks it’s revving up for a SHOCKING ending. Both of Ira Levin’s classic novels, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, have this issue to some extent. It’s not possible to read these novels with a blank mind: to read them is, basically, to reread them. But re-reading Rosemary’s Baby is really fun! It’s interesting to see the subtle ways in which the men in Levin’s novels are horrible. I mean, the women are never perfect. In fact, one gets the impression that they’re no better, morally, than the men. Rosemary is petty and a schemer and for much of the beginning of the novel she lies to her husband about her ovarian cycles because she wants to get pregnant (even though he is not so sanguine about having a child). But…because the women are powerless, you sympathize with them. And the men…man…they are horrible. Not all the men. There’s usually a kindly older gent somewhere. But most of the men…my god. It is fascinating to see the simple and subtle ways that they gaslight and manipulate Rosemary. I don’t know why this one made me feel better, but it really did.
Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee — I’ve actually had this one for a long time. It is undoubtedly one of the weirder novels I’ve ever read. It’s a collection of essays and speeches that were originally written by Coetzee. Most of them were separately published by non-fiction. But, in this novel, they’re put into the mouth of a tired old writer, Elizabeth Costello, who’s achieved a living legend status somewhat similar to Coetzee’s. She travels around the world, visits relatives and old friend, and delivers speeches on realism and the state of literature and animal rights and love. It is an amazing performance. Once again, I thought this would be the last thing I’d be interested in, but I was completely enraptured. Costello is such a vivid and well-realized character. Her relationships are so complex, and the feelings that people have about her are so delicate. For much of the first part of the book, she’s in the company of her son. And he has such odd, conflicted emotions about her. He realized, late in his life, that his mother was a genius, and, because of that genius, he’s sort of started to forgive her for his childhood. So, yeah, the fiction part is amazing. But what’s really astonishing are the speeches and how they fit in with the fiction. The speeches are, somehow, integral to this book. Each one fleshes out Costello’s character and makes her come alive a little bit more. You get the sense of her playfulness and her integrity and her iconoclasm and her peevishness. And you get some sense of what it means to lead a life of the mind and to put so much of yourself into ideas. It’s really amazing that this novel works at all. The fact that it works well is a tremendous accomplishment.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie – Crime novels would seem to be perfect for a bad mood, but in the last seven days I’ve actually sampled and discarded a ton of them, including a bunch by my favorites: Cain, Thompson, Willeford, Goodis. For some reason, though, Agatha Christie has held my interest. Her novels are so odd. They have so little personality. The characters don’t really pop. Even the settings are just barely sketched-in. But, somehow, those settings really manage to evoke a hazy, mysterious atmosphere. And her plots are rollercoasters. The amount of stuff that happens is simply incredible. I guess this kind of stripped-down book is good for a bad mood. (I’m not done with this one yet, so don’t spoil it! Unlike w/ Roger Ackroyd, I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen in this one!)
Okay, so sometimes I feel like I am neglecting this blog. That is not really true, I guess, but I built up quite a lot of posting in March and February, and I am getting slightly more traffic than I used to get, so I kind of feel like I owe it to you folks to post something once in awhile. Still, the heart wants what it wants, and right now what it wants is to unsystematically ramble about the books I’ve read so far in April.
The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society Of Pickup Artists by Neil Strauss – I am so embarrassed to have read this book. I mean it. I was seriously considering never telling anyone that I had ever read it. It is basically about nerds who form little clubs where they try to scientifically figure out how to pick up women. And I felt compelled to mention it because this book is the most entertaining book ever. It supplants my old most entertaining book ever, which was Carolyn Jessop’s Escape (a memoir growing up in a polygamous Mormon splinter sect). Yes, I guess there is something about creepy sexual subcultures that just really appeals to me, nonfiction-wise. I am going to do my best not to explore what that means.
The Game is so amazingly ridiculous that it is hard to believe it could be real. I am convinced that everyone in this book is gay. They are so homosocial. They’re all about just bro’ing out together and forming little cliques and having all this drama with each other. All the heat and sizzle in the book comes from relationships between men. Women are barely a presence at all.
Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga – When I originally read this book, around a week ago, I had so much more to say about it. In fact, I realize now that I never wrote about The White Tiger, which I read two months ago and really loved too. Basically, both these books are supreme poverty porn. There is something deliriously intoxicating about how miserable it is possible to be in India. The beauty of Aravind Adiga is that he writes poor characters as if they were rich people transplanted into the lives of poor people. He makes the lot of a Delhi-based driver, who is richer than 75% of Indians, seem like the most miserable thing imaginable. It’s not psychologically accurate, but it is emotionally compelling.
Parallel Lives, Volume III by Plutarch – Classically educated people are huge fakers. You know how, when you read old writers, like Emerson (especially Emerson), they’re always mentioning little anecdotes from the lives of Romans and Greeks that you’ve never heard of. And these anecdotes usually illustrate some sort of moral point? Well those guys had just read Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, which is a collection of little anecdotes about famous Romans and Greeks that he uses to illustrate moral points.
You know, the novella length is really ideal for biography. I don’t really want to spend 100,000 words learning about some guy, even if he is an awesome guy. But sometimes I do want to know more about a person than I can find in their Wikipedia entry. The length of each of Plutarch’s lives is about perfect (15-20k words). Also, at least in the Project Gutenberg version, each volume focuses on a different part of Greek/Roman history. Volume III was about Alexander’s conquests and about Rome’s Civil Wars. It had a lot of big guys in it: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Crassus, Pompey, Cato. I liked it. I know that the right way to learn history is systematically, and not by studying the biographies of great men, but sometimes it’s fun to say ‘Screw that’ and skip straight to the exciting stories and colorful personalities.
Waiting For The Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – There are some authors whose work I really like, but who I never look forward to reading. I really enjoyed Coetzee’s Disgrace when I read it last year. I stayed up and finished it at like 3 AM. But I never even felt tempted to pick up anything else by him. Waiting for the Barbarians is a fantasy novel though! Well, kind of. It’s fantasy without any magic. Or worldbuilding. It’s basically like Kalpa Imperial. It’s about an unnamed magistrate at the edge of an unnamed empire that is at war with some pretty generic barbarians. It’s really hard to pin down the appeal of this book. But it is totally captivating.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde – I’ve been reading through a number of Wilde’s essays lately, and I was like, “Hmm, I am totally unfamiliar with his artistic work. If it kind of sucks, then it would be somewhat foolish to take seriously these essays about producing art and the nature of art and the awesomeness of being an artist.” So I read some of his plays. This one is amazing. You know how when you read the comedic portions of Shakespeare, you end up being kind of amazed at how quick and clever everything is, but you’re not actually amused because it’s too much work to figure out what is going on and anyway the jokes are in old-timey language so your brain cannot really interpret them as jokes and anyway a lot of the jokes are puns, which don’t really do it for modern audiences anyway? Well, reading this play is what it must have been like for one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries to read one of his comedies. It is that good.
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Ever since reading Emma, two years ago, I have steadily read through every single one of Austen’s books (except Pride and Prejudice) without ever being really satisfied with any of them. All of them have bits and pieces of what I liked about Emma (in this case, I found the slow, fitful plotting and some of the dialogue to be to my taste), but none of them have quite done it. I really wanted to like this one just because most people do not like it. But in the end I could not, for exactly the same reason most people can’t. Fanny Price is totally insufferable. What is her deal, seriously? What makes her so much better than everyone else? Also, the novel is severely confused about some things. If Fanny is good because she wasn’t spoiled, then why are her brothers and sisters (who grew up with much less nice stuff than she did) not good as well? Does being rich make you good? Or does being poor make you good? This book is confused. All it can say for certain is that if you put on an amateur theatrical in your house then you are totally beyond-the-pale in terms of your evilness. Oh well, I guess I will finally go read Pride and Prejudice.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre – I’ve been reading JLC, but somehow don’t really have anything to say. What book of his should I read next? I’ve only read this one and Call For The Dead (which I almost kind of liked better?)
Methland by Nick Reading – This is a very entertaining book. It’s about meth in small town America. I am fascinated by small towns and the way that they’ve gone, in the national consciousness, from idyllic places to hellish dystopias. But I just need to say one thing. The drug problem is over. Drug use peaked in 1980. Since then we’ve had 30 years of drug use at roughly current levels (went up a little in the 2000’s, but not nearly to 80s levels). What we have now is systemic. And we have learned to live with it. It’s not going to get worse. It’s probably not going to get better. Why do we keep pretending like drugs are something new? They are not. They are not new. They are nothing to get worried about. Oh, another problem that is totally over (briefly touched on in this book) is illegal immigration. Seriously, look at the number of illegal immigrants entering this country. That number has dropped precipitously. And you know why? There are no jobs for them here anymore. There aren’t even any jobs for us. We solved illegal immigration by becoming poor. Also, amphetamines were basically legal in the 40’s and 50’s (in the form of things like Benzedrine inhalers). Cocaine and heroin were legal in the 20s. If the drug problem is merely one of supply and demand, then why were these eras not a hellish, swirling vortex of drug abuse? I think there is a good chance that drug use actually was really high back then*, but since it doesn’t fit into our cultural narratives, we have forgotten about it.
*I mean, Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of An English Opium Eater was about getting narcotized to all hell way back in 1804. And yet, somehow, we never think of Regency England as high-tide for druggies (The reason Mr. Darcy was a jerk was probably because he was in withdrawal)