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.
George Saunders: Tenth of December
This is a rewarding collection of short stories about inequality, morality, human folly and meaning well. Saunders writes with compassion, and is excellent with voice so we find ourselves inhabiting his fascinating characters. The stories are suspenseful, funny, and well observed. If all this sounds on the bland side, know that the stories are sometimes deeply weird for mixing in science-fiction trappings. I love the Victorian classic “The Diary of A Nobody” so I was amazed to find a hilariously pitch-perfect update in “The Semplica Girl Diaries” (until it edges in an altogether darker direction). Unless you want a spoiler for that story, I’d advise skipping the book’s introduction until you finish the volume. (*****)
David Nicholls: One Day
With a train to catch and without reading material, I grabbed this 2009 novel I’d never heard of off the bookshop paperback carousel. The story follows Emma and Dexter from an almost hook-up on the summer day in 1988 when they graduate from a British university, through the next 20 years. Each chapter captures their evolving and intersecting lives in snapshot fashion, on the same day at yearly intervals. It’s a rich read which I enjoyed very much. The characters are carefully drawn with great compassion, and the conclusion brought tears to my eyes. (****)
Robert Macfarlane: The Old Ways
This is my book of the year. MacFarlane records his progress along ancient paths, recalling history and describing what he sees. His depictions of nature (for the ways he navigates are almost all rural) are original and arresting in a “yes, that’s just what it’s like” way: “the pylon’s lyric crackle” “A tern beats upwind: scissory wings” “the sound of gull-cry and wave-suck.” There’s even a ghostly episode that would fit right into Levi Stahl’s I’vebeenreadinglately October blog posts. (*****)
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 (*****)