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.
Qiu Miaojin: Last Words from Montmartre (New York Review Books Classics)
Qiu Miaojin includes André Gide’s description of the book he wrote about his marriage, “What’s unique about our story is that it has no obvious contours,” in Last Words from Montmartre, a novel that, she tells us, features “a plot that has long since disappeared.” That these reflections on narrative are part of Last Words, the novel they serve to elucidate, and that they are apt, places Qiu’s novel squarely at the avant-garde end of the literary spectrum. As such, it will not be for everyone. It will, however, be very much for those who are avid for the enduring pleasure a novelist gives when she offers something more than a book with which to kill a couple hours. Last Words from Montmartre is not a book with which to kill time; it is a book about how love, passion, and life can lead one to kill oneself, as Qiu’s protagonist seems likely to do at novel’s end, as Qiu herself did a year after she moved from her birthplace, Taiwan, to Paris to do graduate work. It is not clear whether Qiu’s life and death can be mapped onto that of the woman who writes the letters of which the novel is composed, but it is refreshing that, though Qiu’s protagonist is, like herself, a lesbian, it is not lesbianism and society’s sometimes less than welcoming reaction to those who love their own sex that leads to the protagonist’s suicide, but rather passion unrequited, frustration at not being loved by the object of desire, of not being lovable enough. Qiu, in Ari Larissa Heinrich’s fluent translation, makes this agony art.
Veronica Gonzalez Peña: The Sad Passions (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)
Veronica Gonzalez Peña quotes the photographer Francesca Goldman quoting Proust: "A person, scattered in space and time, is no longer a woman but a series of events on which we can throw no light, a series of insoluble problems." In this account of a family of women whose lives bear the imprint placed on them by the insane mother Peña employs their varied voices to shed light on just these insoluble problems. The Sad Passions is another fascinating and challenging text from Semiotext(e), one of our most interesting publishers.
Sarah Pinborough: A Matter of Blood (Forgotten Gods Trilogy)
The mix of gritty, urban, all too believable,near-future anomie, and fantasy of a kind that has nothing to do with swords or lords, intrigued me enough to start the book. As I moved through it, though, I often found myself thinking that it really wasn't gripping enough to keep on with. Until it was, and I'm now I'm thinking I'll probably continue through the trilogy.
Sara Gran: Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway
With Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway Sara Gran gives us a worthy follow-up to City of the Dead, the novel in which we were introduced to her sleuth. Gran skillfully weaves together two investigations, one in the past and mostly set in New York's East Village, and one in the present and mostly set in Northern California. For the detective DeWitt, detection continues to be a mystical calling fueled by lots of drugs. She does a line of coke about as often as the protagonists of Hemingway novels have a drink, and like Hemingway's drinkers, she is still mostly able to function . . . until she isn't. We'll find out more about that, I expect, in the next installment.
Gerald Vizenor: Blue Ravens: Historical Novel
Native Americans: a culture destroyed, relegated to dusty reservations, alcoholic and hopeless. Native Americans: wise stewards of the Earth who remain dignified in spite of the indignities they have suffered. These are the images that spring all too readily to the minds of many of us who are not Native Americans. It takes a writer like Gerald Vizenor, "citizen of the White Earth Nation of the Anishinaabeg in Minnesota," to show us that these images are insufficient, to de-exoticize the native cultures that have been viewed through lenses that distort. In Blue Ravens he tells us the story of two Anishinaabe brothers who, as we follow them from the reservation on which they grow up, through the trenches of World War I, back to the reservation, and back to Paris where, writer and artist, they enter the Bohemian artistic world of that place and time. Vizenor teaches us much, though the characters he creates, about our history, our present, and our relation with those we've been taught to consider "other," and he does it in a fashion that does credit to the trickster tales that have inspired him.
Anthony Holden: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them
Every since high school, I’ve found poetry difficult so I bought this collection to see if I could learn to appreciate it better via the tear ducts. The format is simple: a hundred famous people, many poets themselves, each briefly introduce a poem that moves them. Though often baffled, and never overcome, I enjoyed the ride. But for me, it’s country music that most readily mists the eyes. Tim McGraw’s “You Get Used to Somebody” and “Nashville Without You,” for example, never fail. (***)
Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople - From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube
"A Time of Gifts"/"Between the Woods and Water"/"The Broken Road" The trilogy describing a youthful walk across Europe in the 1930s is absorbing, fascinating and full of beauty. I thoroughly enjoyed every step of the way. (****)
Frederic Gros: A Philosophy of Walking
A thoughtful compendium of ideas about walking that includes abstract ideas like freedom, historical accounts like pilgrimage, and biographies of philosophers and writers for whom walking was important in their lives. It’s a book both grave and wild, offering wisdom in measure to the effort you put into reading it. (***)
Alain de Botton: The News: A User's Manual
Alain de Botton makes a (to me) convincing case that there are few categories of news that couldn’t be reported in a more useful way. And that realization was enough to wean me off my addiction to internet news sites. Now, instead of multiple daily visits seeking novelty and diversion, I go to the Guardian and Japan Today sites once for just a few minutes each. And I’ve canceled my Guardian Weekly subscription. So this book has been life changing, and reading it is the beginning of an, I believe, more healthy relationship with news media. (*****)
John Williams: Stoner
The author lays it out on the first page: the protagonist, an early 20th century university lecturer, was forgotten on his death. And indeed the life as it unfolds is one of failures both gentle and spectacular. And so, in the way of few stories and fewer biographies, it is a life by which we can measure our own less than unqualified success. This is a novel that is understated and gloriously written. It’s been awhile since I cried toward the end of a book, but I did here. (*****)