Charles Olson: Call Me Ishmael
Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael is a work of literary criticism that falls squarely into what it's hard not to think of as the American eccentric school. Think: Edward Dahlberg, Guy Davenport, D.H. Lawrence (Lawrence, of course, was English, but it was in his Studies in Classic American Literature that his critical eccentricity emerged). Since these are the kinds of critics one wants to read and reread, this is entirely a good thing.
When Olson is talking about Melville's work most explicitly as in the long chapter on Shakespeare's influence, he seems correct and scholarly. In the more speculative chapters, like the one where he blames Melville's post-Moby Dick fixation on Christ for the enervation (in Olson's view) of his later work he is exciting and convincing. The compression and pop of Olson's prose throughout is exemplary, and the juxtaposition of the FACT sections of the book with Olson's more essayistic chapters jars readers into thought.
Jerome Charyn: Marilyn the Wild (Isaac novel)
A manic police procedural that could, I think, only have been written in the '70s. While Roth and Bellow were advancing the cause of Jewish-American literature, Jerome Charyn was creating the Jewish-American thriller. Charyn's book shares with the work of those literary lions a love of language and an eye for the absurd, particularly the absurdity of the community of which he was a part. Marilyn the Wild is the first of a quartet; I look forward to the remaining three.
Haruki Murakami: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel
A woman is raped and a man who is not the rapist pays for the crime in ways other, and perhaps more severe, than judicially. He comes to understand that the people who lead to his paying this severe price also paid a price, that his pain, their pain, the pain of the woman who is raped and later murdered are linked like the network of Kanto trains that forms the frontispiece of the (Chip Kidd designed) book. Haruki Murakami in his least fantastic mode has given us, in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, a moving novel about the connections human beings form, break, and cannot break.
Teju Cole: Every Day Is for the Thief: Fiction
Teju Cole's first novel, Every Day is for the Thief, is similar to his second novel (the first one published outside of Nigeria), the justly lauded Open City in that both feature a protagonist exploring a city. In Open City the metropolis is New York; in Every Day it is Lagos, and in each case the protagonist is a young and cultured Nigerian not unlike Teju Cole, who due to his upbringing as well as personal predilections is an outsider--or feels himself to be one--in the city through which he wanders. The prose is quiet, but exquisite; the form straddles the line between essay and fiction; and the revelations, such as they are, are subtle, with those threatening to poke their head through in Every Day being even less obvious than those in the slightly more dramatic Open City. Cities are where we live now, are the way we live, now. Teju Cole, working in the tradition invented by Sebald, is preeminent among artists now devoted to painting for us our lives, now, in those places.
Herman Melville: Moby Dick (Norton Critical Editions)
It's been years since I've read the other great American novel, Moby Dick, and I'm glad I did set out again, because this voyage was even more rewarding than the first. I had forgotten so much: how engaging a narrator Ishmael (let's call him that) is, how Shakespearean especially the second half of the book is, how the novel is perhaps among the first entries in a strand of American fiction that I'll call the encyclopedic (though the whale's also present in Ezra Pound's approach to poetry), and also how insightful the book remains about humanity. They don't call them classics for nothing.
Ian Patterson: Guernica and Total War (Profiles in History)
"There seems to be no prospect," writes Ian Patterson near the end of Guernica and Total War, "of a let-up in the use of bombing, all over the world."
Gaza is only the most recent confirmation of this grim vision. Patterson's book is an excellent primer in how we, and especially the artists and writers among us, attempt to come to terms with life that "still takes place under a sky that may one day fall on all our heads."
I have long understood that there's no such thing as tactical bombing (aka: surgical strikes). I have long reminded friends who support this sort of intervention that all bombing strikes are strategic, designed to create chaos and sew terror in the population.
Patterson has convinced me that I was only half-right about this. He points out, that the term "'strategic bombing," or rather the indiscriminate bombing of civilians . . . was no more than a propaganda tool. The wild inaccuracy of most bombing meant that most of the damage it caused could not be described as intentional. But the claim that it was strategic seemed to make the bombing part of a plan, gave it a higher purpose, so that the civilian deaths it necessarily entailed were somehow also excused."
I agree with Vera Britain that "obliteration bombing" is a more accurate term.
What a wonderful world.
Ross Macdonald: The Barbarous Coast (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
Ross Macdonald was a perceptive, witty, and cynical observer of that odd piece of the world, Southern California. That being the case, it was inevitable that he would, from time to time, turn his attention to Hollywood. Much of The Barbarous Coast takes place in Malibu, up the coast from that provincial neighborhood, but as Malibu is largely a playground for the denizens of Hollywood, The Barbarous Coast can still be counted as a Hollywood novel, perhaps not one of the great ones, but still, a worthy consideration of that provincial scene and an excellent further installment in the investigations of, and the investigation of, Macdonald's detective, Lew Archer.
Enrique Vila-Matas: Never Any End to Paris
In Never Any End to Paris Enrique Vila-Matas has given us a novel about a lecture about his time as a young in Paris trying to write a novel while living in a garret owned by Marguerite Duras. He manages to be at once formally interesting, funny, and penetrating about living in Paris in particular, and living as an expatriate in general, about the Parisian literary and bohemian demimonde, and about what writing is and can be. He is an avant-garde writer for those who like to smile while they are amazed.
Xu Zechen: Running Through Beijing
In China's major cities there is an elite one percent or so that drives nice cars, eats in nice restaurants, and generally lives pleasant lives, thanks in large part to the ninety-nine percent, the migrants from the country who've moved to the big city looking for their big breaks, and are willing to work two, three, or four, jobs to survive. Of course some of them turn to petty crime: the hawking of pirated DVDs and fake IDs, prostitution. Xu Zechen's novel features characters from this hustling underclass, and follows one of them, Dunhuang, on his adventures in Beijing selling DVDs, dodging cops, and navigating relationships with women who are similarly engaged. The novel, like its protagonist, runs though Beijing, leaving us with a tale that can only be called picaresque, and that makes us wonder why that fictional template is not more often used.
Geoff Dyer: Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence
Steve Martin, a very funny man, says this is the funniest book he ever read. I'm not sure it beats out Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in my personal pantheon of funny books, but Out of Sheer Rage has certainly entered that pantheon.
Geoff Dyer sets out to write a sober academic study of D.H. Lawrence; this book is a wildly digressive account of how he fails to do so. It does contain insights into Lawrence, but those are eclipsed by accounts of Dyer's procrastination, neuroticism, hypochondria, and, in a way that is almost Nicholson Bakeresque, the minutiae of his life.
This is a must-read for those of us who like to think of ourselves as writers but (unlike Dyer) don't actually write much.