Norman Rush: Subtle Bodies
This is a good novel. Since it's a Norman Rush novel, good is not good enough, given that his three earlier books are great: masterpieces. Domestic comedy and bedroom farce—even if the Iraq war looms in the background—are not Rush's forte. It's not that he does them badly; it's that he shouldn't be doing them at all. He's talked here and there about the battle he had to wage to keep Subtle Bodies from turning into a much larger book containing, among other things, a history of the American left. This more expansive novel is, I think, the book I would rather have read.
Ehud Havazelet: Bearing the Body: A Novel
This novel seemed at first to follow a template familiar to readers of lit-fic, and therefore, a bit tired. Nathan Mirsky is a medical resident who is doing his best to destroy himself with alcohol, and to hurt those around him for reasons, and in ways, he doesn't, himself, understand. We turn the initial pages and expect, with a sinking feeling, that we will see him to continue to spiral down the drain until something--a good woman, nature, music--somehow redeems him. Snore. But in fact it's the novel that redeems itself as Nathan and his holocaust-survivor father, go to San Francisco to try to understand the circumstances around Nathan's estranged heroin-addict brother's death. Bearing the Body doesn't quite shake off the template--there does seem to be some sort of redemption at the end--but along the way the author, a master at foreshadowing, and also at setting up interesting parallels between different characters' circumstances manages to present an engaging use of that template, a novel all about the bodies we bear.
George Mann: The Affinity Bridge (Newbury & Hobbes Investigations)
George Mann's The Affinity Bridge evokes and elaborates upon Victorian London with panache. Pea-soupers, but also dirigibles and revenants (sort of like zombies). It's a boy's own adventure that draws its inspiration from Sherlock Holmes (the lead snoop is an eccentric genius who enjoys a bit of laudanum now and then). A diverting bit of fluff.
Ross Macdonald: The Way Some People Die (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
More Macdonaldian goodness.
Ross Macdonald: The Drowning Pool
Ross Macdonald is a great writer who, oh yeah, wrote genre fiction. It's no surprise anymore I guess that genre fiction can contain great writing. If there are still any doubters, Macdonald will silence them with writing like this: "Reavis looked at me like a grateful dog. Which I was observing for rabies." or "He sat down at a table again, with his shoulders slumped like a padded coat on an inadequate hanger."
Edmund Clerihew Bentley: Trent's Last Case (The Best Mysteries Of All Times)
A clever mystery by the inventor of the clerihew, E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case, published in 1913, is a pioneering mystery wherein the detective takes a step or two away from sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes who might be seen as a collection of mannerisms. That's not always evident under the slow pacing of the book, and its flowery Edwardian prose, but nevertheless, it's clear that Trent is a touch more human than was the norm in in Bentley's time, not least from the fact that Trent's powers of logical deduction are not quite powerful enough for him to correctly identify the murderer of an American financier, the crime at the novel's center.
Robert Palmer: Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta
Moving from New Orleans North one encounters the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, home of Delta Blues, the music that was later carried North to Chicago and electrified, and which became crucial to much of the popular music that came after it. Robert Palmer does a brilliant job of elucidating it, moving between the social conditions—harsh to say the least—in which it was born to the artists who invented it: American masters like Robert Johnson, Robert Lockwood, and most emblematically, a man who lived the history of the music, Muddy Waters. Essential reading for music lovers planning a turn in the South.
Grace Lichtenstein: Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans
I took a detour from the Faulknerathon to read up on Southern music. The music in New Orleans is amazing, and this book does it justice, giving us both its history, and its continuing vitality. The street musicians on Bourbon and Frenchman Streets were better than many musicians I've heard playing in clubs.
Ross Macdonald: The Moving Target
I was delighted to stumble upon a stack of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer mysteries at a bookstall in Amsterdam. Needless to say, I snapped them up. Ezra Pound reminded us that poetry needs to be at least as well written as prose. Likewise, genre fictions needs to be at least as well written as literary fiction. This book, the first in the series, is. Published in 1949, and set in a Santa Barbara like town, it also gives us a riveting picture of California becoming California.
William Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom! The Corrected Text
Faulkner's novels are arguably all about time. He never lets us forget that, though time may move straight like an arrow, that's not the way most of us experience it. He is a master at foreshadowing, hinting at events early, but allowing us to understand their significance, and how they are connected to other events, only later. Though one may prefer the stark modernism of the earlier novels, the gothic exuberance of Absalom, Absalom! allows Faulkner to demonstrate his mastery of his form, and also makes one wonder whether any other Southern novel is really necessary. The answer is probably yes . . . if it's by Faulkner.
Tim Kreider: We Learn Nothing: Essays
Reading this book of essays by Tim Kreider, the astringent cartoonist, is like hanging out with a smart and funny friend, as he shares his hard-won insights into human fallibility. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with him. As David Foster Wallace says on the back cover, “Kreider rules.” (*****)
Dr. Kenjiro Setoue: Doctor Stories from the Island Journals of the Legendary Dr. Koto
“Lost in this life, I have somehow grown old.” Dr Setoue signed up to work at a remote island clinic in Southern Japan for six months, and 36 years later is still there. His journals portray Japanese life and its webs of responsibilities, and the particular opportunities offered by island life. “I am not always busy, neither besieged by work nor play, and this allows for quiet time to look closely at myself [and to think about my work and life].” He relates how he brings state-of-the-art medical care to a place where people once died of illness and accident for lack of it, and in doing so finds “the happiness that comes… from feeling deeply that what I [do] is of help to someone.” Much of his work is ministering to the old, for the island’s population is ageing as it shrinks. Medical cases are described in such numbers that I couldn’t help but gain a better sense of the illnesses and disabilities that are in store for me as I grow older. The book is physically beautiful with a lot of excellent photographs that, like the journals, bring the island and its people to life. My only criticism is some unnecessary repetition. Thanks to David from introducing this book in a Blockhead post (*****)
Sergio De La Pava: A Naked Singularity: A Novel
This 600+ pager was my companion for the summer. Set in a New York public defender’s office, it’s a novel that’s a mirror for our times. Fascinating, thought provoking, compassionate, hilarious, moving, thrilling and weird in turn, it’s written with verve, and a flair bordering on genius. Many thanks to Levi Stahl’s I’ve Been Reading Lately blog for recommending it. (*****)
Michel Houellebecq: The Elementary Particles
This is an absorbing story of two brothers, their mother, and the heady freedoms of the 60s. It stands outs for its portrait of the times, and its wonderfully honest and sometimes bitterly funny writing about sex. Tragic and strange, in a good way. (***)
John Gray: The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
“Straw Dogs” is approachable and endlessly stimulating. (I reread it regularly and get fresh inspiration from it each time.) “The Silence of Animals”, billed as a sequel, is as dense and opaque as most books of philosophy. Which is not a compliment. After two passes which yielded little, I may come back to it some day, out of respect for the author, in the hope of getting more. (Here's what I said about Straw Dogs last time I read it: "I first read this book of philosophy in 2002 and it was even more powerful and helpful this time around. Gray convinces me that the whirlwind of human action and our attempts to make the world a better place are ways to try and deny our mortality. He suggests, rather, a life of contemplation and seeing, which is what I now aspire to. ***** My book of the year.") (*)