All condensed together here. The books of 2014.
**May 1st Update**
Well the sun has come out to play, and my brain has gone to a sodden mush that defies too much concentration. Between books, I'm wading through a bunch of website related nonsense (brainstorming for updates to our neglected office website and taking my responsibilities as custodian of the WCP website a lot more seriously) and unwinding from the mental cramps with some crosswords.
The Virgin Suicides. Jeffrey Eugenides. I wanted to like this a lot more - or a lot less, really - than I actually did. There was a plangent pulchrous quality to his prose that was admirable. The structure of the story is told from a first person plural that was intriguing. And the way that he interweaves the glimpsed vicarious stories of the sisters who we know from the offset will commit suicide leaves their inner world an un-delved mystery while peripherally highlighting the stories around each interviewee's experience of the girls and the impact of their situation on the town. There's a sort of listless quality that is alternately appealing and tedious. Sometimes I felt that I had stumbled into something truly evocative and brilliant, but any attempt at prolonged reading was oddly off-putting. I felt impatient in a way I don't usually feel while reading. As if perhaps the story was a bit too taken up in its conceit and had gone on a bit too long.
Republic of Wine, Mo Yan. After reading Red Sorghum and wanting that but with a little more of the gleeful magical realistic nods to the classical Chinese story tradiions of Life and Death are Wearing Me Out... boy did I get that in spades! Republic of Wine is a rollicking mix of classical Chinese genres - redolent of Journey to the West, kung fu novels, hits of Water Margin - blended madly with the absurdist acerb of Lu Xun, the irreverent madness of Rabelais, and the sheer indulgence of Mo Yan's own distinctive crudeness and madness. All of that, but then drunk. The novel, if one can aptly describe it as such starts as a detective story about a Special Investigator sent to an imaginary part of China to investigate claims that residents there are eating little boys. This is interrupted at first by letters between Mo Yan's fictional persona and a "fan" from Liquorland, who studies liquor at Brewer's college but whose purported true calling is literature. As the first story unfolds, it is subsumed by the "works of fiction" sent by Li Yidou which begin to reshape the nightmarish tale of the first, while handily lampooning any variety of literary and culinary pretentions along the way. Eventually Mo Yan is dragged into his own story with an inebriated flurry and madness. A book that sufficiently induces the delirium of a heavy binge, just one step shy of blacking out. I think it may induce hangovers, but is quite the ride while working through it. Not for the squeamish or those prone to motion sickness. A frolicking antidote to the numbness of Virgin Suicides, most certainly, although I doubt it would be many people's (fermented) cup of tea.
Peter and Wendy: J.M. Barrie. The familiar Peter Pan story in its original form. Disney did less of a crazy job adapting this than I'd previously remembered. Although, the fascinating thing about children's stories from that era is just how erudite and morbid they are. In the make believe land of Neverland, one acknowledged to be the heritage of little children's fantasies and never entirely real or unreal, death and danger is hardly glossed over. There's a very savage element befitting of that childhood mind, and the tension between the fear of growing up and the loss of staying a child is far more plangent. Barrie also plays quite delightfully with narrative voice, interjecting himself as if he were truly telling a story to a child, but maybe a child with a few years of literary theory, some basis in the classics of several genres, a decent understanding of latin, and a surpassingly stellar inner lexicon. It is also, one must own, full of enough little twinges of racism (although one may grant that "The Red Skins" are necessarily one-dimensional products of British childhood fantasy and not intended to reflect any particular native americans, it's still a hard case to make), sexism (less of a firestorming problem, but still something of which I'd be wary), and violence (there's a lot of killing which is done in a way that doesn't mince words) that I have a hard time imagining this being read in a classroom today. What strikes me on a reread is how delightful Barrie's descriptions of the children's home life, with a mother (whose smile always carries one kiss on its corner that can never be reached), a very delightfully lampooned "proper" father (who is so ashamed of his contribution to his children's disappearance that he takes to living literally in a doghouse, a token which becomes a point of pride for him over time), and Nana the nurse dog.
The Little White Bird, J.M. Barrie. The largely autobiographical story of a stuffily pompous but secretly kind-hearted and whimsical old codger and his relationship with a little boy for whose very birth he takes credit. A lonely elderly man still distant after losing the love of his life to the ravages of time and eventual disappointment finds himself oddly drawn into a romance between a little governess and a struggling artist. Thought he insists that they both thoroughly irritate him, her sadness when they have a fight prompts out hero to intervene mysteriously to bring them together again. When they marry, he continues the odd act of charity towards the couple, always in a grumpy and begrudging fashion. When they give birth to David, he invents a son of his own named Philip to explain his presence in various childhood shops to the father. As the family is poor, he eventually tells the father that Philip has died, as an excuse to give them all of "Philip's baby clothes". But the idea of Philip is real: the perfect child who loves him, who must someday grow up and grow disenchanted with him as all people do. In an associated episode, even his loyal St. Bernard becomes human to know him better, but lapses into depression with disillusionment as a man and must return as a dog to regain that connection. The narrator struggles with his kind heart and his fear, as a "confirmed spinster" at the club:
So long a time has elapsed, you must know, since I abated of the ardours of self-inquiry that I revert in vain (through many rusty doors) for the beginning of this change in me, if changed I am;
...Having failed in those days to discover why I was driven from the garden, I suppose I ceased to be enamoured of myself, as of some dull puzzle, and then perhaps the whimsicalities began to collect unnoticed.
This book is also notable for being the first mention of Peter Pan, and the basis of subsequent versions. In this version, he lives on an island in Kensington Gardens and is only seven days old. He is part bird and part infant, and loved by the fairies for his musical abilities. It is a story that the protagonist and David tell together, and which takes up several chapters in final form. There are, as I mentioned, shades of discomfort in some of the passages. His adoration for David can be read in a suspect light, although I think it is reaching to do so. Regardless, it is sweet without being treacly and quite amusing while remaining poignant.
**March 30th Update**
Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler. After Infinite Jest, I needed a palate cleanser that would neither pale pathetically next to memories of a still present literary adventure, nor demand much more stretching for my beleaguered brain. A sexy, no-ties, rebound book in other words. And who better for a tryst than Chandler or Hammett. This did not disappoint. A fast and fun little gallivant through murder, corruption, drugs, and dopplegangers, with signature Chandler elan:
Degarmo spun on his heel and looked at me wonderingly. "Did he just say 'whom'?"
"Yeah, but don't hit him," I said. "There is such a word."
Degarmo licked his lips. "I knew there was," he said. "I often wondered where they kept it."
Wild Sheep Chase and (inevitably since I'm on a re-reading kick) Dance, Dance, Dance - Haruki Murakami. I read Dance, Dance, Dance back in June of 2012. I think it was my second Murakami, after a hallucinatory sickness-ridden New Year's Eve binging on Kafka on the Shore. Next to Wind Up Bird Chronicles, DDD has remained one of my favorite works of Murakami's. Something particularly endured in the balance of typical Murakami elements and themes. DDD takes up with the narrator of Wild Sheep Chase and refers to events that occurred in that story, so it seemed fitting to finally read the semi-prequel. Wild Sheep Chase had a very different tone than some of Murakami's later works. Another reviewer called it relentlessly coy. It is spare somehow as if we are viewing the story through a reflection of a reflection; although, it is, of course, laden with stunning imagery and a healthy dose of magical realism. The main plot(ish) involves a man and his nameless girlfriend with supernatural ears attempting to track down a magical sheep that has used various human agents to amass a power structure in Japan. There's a lot more to it, but it feels quite clean and makes no attempt to remark at its own quirkiness (thank goodness). While I enjoyed it, it naturally made me begin to pine for DDD, or at least it reignited my curiosity for the constantly sparked flashes and memory fragments of the latter work during my reading. DDD evolves from the wry distance of WSC to plumb the disconnection felt by the narrator and to erupt through it with plangent timbres of longing and profundity. There is a real journey here, but not one belabored with triteness. Odd still, in that Murakami way, but powerful and satisfying. Really glad to reread it.
Oman Ra - Viktor Pelevin. A short novel along the lines of a satirical take on the hypocrisies and absurdities of the bureaucratic state told in a coming-of-age style narration about the end times of the cosmonaut program. I was disappointed, probably because the reviews heralded Pelevin as something just shy of the mystical techno-love child of Nabokov, Kafka, Bulgakov and a hit of potent LSD. It was well enough written, and served its theme, but just didn't particularly wow or engage me. The twists and turns were fairly expected, the tone was appropriate but too level to really pull me in, and the prose itself was tidy but unextraordinary. Given the high regard of Pelevin from those whose tastes I trust, I am wont to pass this off as a misfire lost in translation and give Pelevin another go with something meatier.
The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolaño. Having seen the posthumous 2666 making the rounds on several different bookstore shelves and lists, I have remained curious about this Chilean author. Based on some of the reviews, there's definitely a love-or-hate quality there and it seemed that Savage Detectives required slightly less of an investment lest I find myself in the haters-camp. I can't speak for 2666, but I definitely did not hate Savage Detectives. I actually found it surprisingly compelling. It is told in three parts: the first a diary entry of an aspiring Mexican poet just on the cusp of 1976. He comes into contact with a group of rough and tumble poets who call themselves visceral realists. Those diary entries, I can't say why, strongly remind me of Turgenev. The greater part of the book is a collection of letters/interviews/personal accounts of characters who had some moment (perhaps) of encounter with the two main characters (if such a thing can be said of these two, who are glimpsed only as their peripheral appearances in other people's stories) These letters are dated between 1976 and 1996, though they often feature recollections from further past time periods. We are left to pull from the fragments of stories and voices in order to construct a narrative of the nominal main characters. The end returns to the diary entries of early 1976. There are several underlying story arcs - love stories, a crime chase of a caper following a pimp and a prostitute, a search for an elusive female poet said to have begun the first visceral realism movement, the perambulations of the two protagonists across Europe - as well as stories from Rwanda to Nicaragua to Barcelona and treatment of movements and politics, as well as the lives more or less ambivalent to both in their own turmoils. I usually consider myself a well-read individual, but this book lays bare my sheer ignorance of latin-American literature and poetry. Virtually all of the characters are based on real life counterparts (sometimes psuedononymously and sometimes not). I believe rereading this in a classroom environment would actually be quite useful, but it was enjoyable even awash in ignorance.
*March 15 Update*
Since my last update, I've actually only read one book, and bits and pieces of The Talented Miss Highsmith. And I've blathered on about my paralysing three-week obsessive love affair with "The Entertainment" elsewhere. But for the sake of record:
Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace. It's impossible to describe this book without making it sound exactly what it isn't. It is admittedly abstruse and erudite, but it is not pretentious. It takes the reader on several wild goose chases through the book's own map, but it isn't "difficult". It breaks every known rule of grammar and "gud writin'" without losing a smidge of elegance. It is wildly hilarious without ever losing a strong and powerful sincerity in the authorial voice. And it manages to have an ending that is both totally unsatisfying yet absolutely perfect all in the same time.
I always dislike the term "challenging" when it comes to literature. It sounds like I am taking on a book to conquer it.In another sense, I appreciate what is being said. A good book can bring one to test the limits of her happily formed constructs and beliefs. Books can require more or less attention, background information, and imagery. And there's a little buzz when one's brain is set awhir figuring things out (there's a reason the mystery genre itself is so popular - human beings like puzzles). Personally I prefer engage. Like a good lover, a good book expects full commitment from my higher self to be appreciated. I also like the word play. Because that's the buzz I get when the analytical canons are on full blast. It's the jouissance shared with my story at the verbal, structural linguistical transgressions of skilled word-crafter: as if I am complicit in the mischief through the act of reading (thus creating).
And that's how I feel about Infinite Jest. I was invited to romp with a story that required and received my engagement. And it was highly satisfying. I don't suggest trying to read this without a good block of free time available.
*February 21 Update*
A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki. A book that had some exquisite moments, but which disappointed me in the end. I think I already spoke of my distaste for the Shroedinger's Cat Ex Machina unecessary tack on chapter. And, given the content, I just couldn't avoid feeling like this was a diluted stab at a Murakami novel that didn't hit home. The use of footnotes as part of story seemed half-hearted and didn't add any necessary layers. I remained uncertain whether it was worth even clicking on them, but occasionally something other than a random translation of a kanji word might be there to imply it was meant to be read this way and failing to do so would miss something.
Swearing: A Social History of Bad Words - Geoffrey Hughes. A fuckin' good time. The underlying premise of the book was that the most powerful swearing has evolved from literal invocation of deistic forces with expected tangible manifestation, to sacrilegiousness, to xenophobia, to sexual. A logophile's playground, although I admit to skipping through some of the lit-crit style analyses of Chaucer and Shakespeare.
The Color Master - Aimee Bender. everything an Aimee Bender collection of short stories should be. Strange, surreal, oddly touching, and delicately balanced. he eponymous story, in particular, really gave me chills. All of her stories have such strong imagery though, that I can be haunted by a concept for days after reading any one story.
Jihadi by my dear plus-buddy +Brandon Toropov! You can't read it yet, because it's not published yet, so I am way cooler than you. I've been one of his beta readers for nearly a year now as his novel has evolved and developed. It brings a whole new reading experience to witness the effect of layers of different drafts and developments of a story hidden underneath. I feel like I know these characters so intimately, having been present at their long labor. Also, it's become a really fantastic book.
Red Sorghum - Mo Yan. Life and Death and Wearing Me Out was one of the most stunning books I read last year. This one similarly blends time and memory, interlocked and imbricated with a fascinating lattice of narrative. It shies from some of the magical realism that allowed Life and Death to play so much with style (the narrator in Life and Death progressed through various animal incarnations during his tale of a Chinese family in second half of the 20th Century). Keeping a single voice allowed more piercing clarity of imagery (exquisite imagery at that) and balanced the harshness of the 1940's in rural China with pure giddiness at the madness of being. Very powerful. Still liked Life and Death more for giving me moments of equal hysteria and chills. But a very beautiful book.
Telegraph Avenue - Michael Chabon. Not actually my gift-book, but one Andrew received and had already read. I coopted it in San Francisco after finishing Red Sorghum. If I were more together, and more skillful, I think perhaps my writing style would resemble Chabon's. A very zesty appetite for words in all their different textures and flavors. And an enduring love for all the characters whose foiables are gently and affectionately mocked. A very sweet story.
Fremder - Russel Hoban. Hoban is incredibly difficult to describe. This is certainly the closest work of his to "sci-fi" although his obsessions with quantum physics are clearly mere jumping off points for the metaphysical preoccupations that characterize his works. The plot is nearly irrelevant, but centers around a narrator who is a professional flickerer. Flickering plays on the idea that human beings are not in a steady state of being, but instead flicker in and out of existence with moments of non-being constantly interjecting. As is often a theme of Hoban's work, the characters' relationships to reality and relative estrangements from presence, are explored in simultaneously soulfoul and lighthearted ways.
Kleinzeit - Russell Hoban. Perhaps the work of his that most evokes Donald Barthelme's oeuvre for me. Another of Hoban's jubilant treatments touching on love, middle-age, and the destructive cycle of creation (writing most specifically). The protagonist contracts pain in his hypotenuese, which expands to assymptotic discomfort and eventually leads him to a hospital. He dialogues with several abstractions, has an ongoing friendship with death, an emotionally complicated battle with yellow notepaper, and relives his own version of the myth of Orpheus after dialoguing with Hospital and busking in Underground. Exuberantly playful and fascinatingly poignant. To attempt to unpack the rife symbolism into some kind of message would be like looking back at Eurydice on the road from hell. It's enough to simply enjoy.
Medusa Frequency - Hoban. One I had read before, but which ties into both of the Hoban books I had just read. Obsession with the Orpheus story and symbolism of Eurydice, Hermes and the Orphic urge to create art with Kleinzeit (really, the protagonist of Kleinzeit could easily be Orff). Obsession with fugal/flickering states of being, the Kraken as the uber-ur-story, and the girl with the Pearl Earring in Fremder. All with the usual Hobanesque play of language and literary form. Suffering from writer's block, the protagonist seeks out an electronic brain stimulation invention from an ex-rival. The stimulation leaves him as custodian of the head of Orpheus who must tell his story (intermittently between turning back into a cabbage or soccer ball), while Herman Orff attempts to sort out his own betrayals and losses.