Donald Fagen: Eminent Hipsters
Anyone who's ever paid attention to Steely Dan's lyrics knows that Donald Fagen can write. They will also know how he writes: cynically, sardonically, and with consummate style. That carries over to his prose in this book, the first half of which is a series of essays about the eminent hipsters--Henry Mancini, Ike Turner, Ray Charles, et al--of the title, artists who showed young Donald, when he was growing up in suburban New Jersey, "how to interpret [his] own world." (Note that the use of the word "eminent" with regard to these hipsters is a rare example of Fagen not being ironic.)
The second half is a diary he kept while on a Dukes of September tour in which he makes it clear that going on tour when you're sixty-four is a very different thing than going on tour when you're twenty-four. One reviewer suggested that Fagen was channeling his crabby Uncle Morty as he bussed from venue to venue. If that's the case, Uncle Morty was very funny indeed.
Ross Macdonald: Find a Victim: A Lew Archer Novel
This entry in the Lew Archer saga seems slightly less well-constructed than the others, but still there are sentences, paragraphs, and pages that will bring a smile. Also, further hints are dropped about Archer's past: he was, we learn, married and divorced.
Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (The Transylvanian Trilogy) (The Writing on the Wall: the Transylvanian Trilogy)
They Were Counted is the first book in a trilogy published in Hungary in the 1930s and '40s. Anyone reading this first entry will be happy that it is a trilogy, that having finished it one is not expelled from Edwardian-era Hungary, a world unfamiliar and fascinating. Miklós Bánffy has populated this world with human beings—Hungarian aristocrats for the most part—who are entirely convincing even as they live a social round that will be strange to all of us except for the glimpses we've seen of it in literature: we follow two cousins as they move from ball to hunt to duel to casino, from mountain castles to town houses in Budapest, and watch one destroy himself with debauchery, and the other try diligently to do the right thing as a large landowner and a politician. All of it is fascinating, elegantly and leisurely told.
Kazushi Hosaka: Plainsong (Japanese Literature Series)
Kazushi Hosaka's Plainsong is a plain song indeed, a novel of the mundane. In offering a reader a novel with no apparent action he is taking a risk, but careful reading reveals that something significant does happen in the book, and it is perfectly foreshadowed by the appearance of a stray kitten at the novel's beginning: the friends who populate the novel turn into a family. That friends can form a family is an idea that seems a bit old in 2014—are there any sitcoms that don't have this premise these days?—but Hosaka's book, we must remember, came out in 1990, and not in the West but in Japan.
Artemis Cooper: Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
Miserableness is generally considered the hallmark of a serious artist. This fine biography of a man who was privileged to live a happy life that he enjoyed to the hilt, and while doing so managed to produce a few good books, reminds us how unnecessary and unpleasant miserableness is. Travel, books, and friendship were at the center of Patrick Leigh Fermor's life, and anyone who shares a passion for those things will enjoy reading about it—and envy him just a little, too.
Frances Towers: Tea with Mr.Rochester
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz's Insatiability fluctuates beween being unputdownable and unreadable. For the moment the latter has come to the fore, in part because a chest cold from hell that puts a check on the energy I need when sailing the wilder shores of Eastern European literature. I needed a break, and the cool integrity, exquisite prose, and carefully crafted interiors of Frances Towers's collection of Short Stories has proven just the thing. A recurring character in these stories is the literary daughter, who stands back, observes, and records. This, of course, would describe Towers herself, but it makes her sound too minor. Though she died before this, her first collection of stories, appeared, it is hard to disagree with Angus Wilson who writes, "it appears no exaggeration to say that her death in 1948 may have robbed us of a figure of more than purely contemporary significance." These are stories to be savored, and savored again.
Ross Macdonald: The Ivory Grin (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
When a skeleton is introduced in the first chapters of a hard-boiled detective novel one can be certain that the bones will get rattled in the final chapter.
This was the first in my ongoing survey of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels in this, the year of the horse. It won't be the last.