Charles Bowden: Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields
This is one of the bleakest books I have ever read, and also, such a superb writer is Charles Bowden, among the most beautiful. Bowden tells us what is happening in Juarez—424 homicides in 2014, for example: it's still happening—and calls out the common lies about why it is happening: "But the nature of life here does not seem to penetrate the minds of people in other places. They seem to think that there is treatment [for mental illness] available here, but that because of the poverty, it is just more austere than in the wealthier zones of the earth. They talk about police corruption, but seem to think in terms of a place like Chicago, and so they do not perceive this as a real problem. They read about the murders, but tell themselves that murders are high in Detroit. They know people are poor, but convince themselves that the people are slowly rising and that soon things will be fine. They read that the Mexican army can be rough but never grasp the fact that historically the army has been stationed all over the country to repress and terrorize the people of Mexico."
This is participant journalism where the participant is having no fun at all; cheap and ubiquitous drugs only add to the misery, and, as Bowden concludes, "... No one can figure out who controls the violence, and no one can imagine how the violence can be stopped."
And this, Bowden suggests, is the future all of us can expect.
Sesshu Foster: Atomik Aztex
Foster uses a sort of multiverse model of reality (which may or may not mesh with the Aztec world view) to imagine a universe that contains a timeline in which the advanced Aztec civilization was able to subjugate the primitive Europeans thanks in large part to their mastery of scientific techno magic. Other timelines exist that are more like the one we live in, and our protagonist passes through several of them: he's in Russia fighting the Nazis, and in the city of Vernon exterminating hogs in a meat-packing plant. We move through these various realities the lightness that, say, Guillermo Cabrera Infante leads us through his phantasmagorical Havana. Lots of chuckles, and a certain amount of horror. Does it all, in the next, make sense? Of course not. As Foster says in an opening note, "Persons attempting to find a plot should read Huck Finn."
- Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Curious Kitten (Pocket Books 724)
The first Perry Mason mystery I read was published in the 1930s, this one in 1942. I cringed a bit when a houseboy who identifies himself as Korean but who everyone believes to be one of those wily Japanese was introduced, and happy that at the end, though suspicion had been cast on him, he wasn't the guilty party. The mystery was riveting enough, but it's the period details that are the most arresting. I wish for example, that I had read the following exchange before my most recent trip to the States:
"Mason said to the man behind the counter, 'Two orders of ham and eggs. Keep the eggs straight up and fry them easy. Plenty of French-fried potatoes. Lots of hot coffee, and you might make two cheeseburger sandwiches on the side.'"
I am going to memorize Mason's order before my next trip so I can try it out on an unsuspecting coffee shop waiter or waitress.
Jane Gardam: The Man in the Wooden Hat
Although I very much enjoyed Jane Gardam's Old Filth, which told the story of a marriage of old English expats from the perspective of the husband, it took me a long time to get to the sequel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which tells the story of the same marriage from the perspective of the wife. It does an excellent job of artfully reminding us that a marriage need not be perfect to be good.
Mary Renault: The Charioteer
I picked up The Charioteer, the first of Mary Renault's novels I've read, assuming, based on her reputation and the title that it would be one of her historical novels set in ancient Greece or Rome. It is not. It is, instead, an examination of gay life during World War II that is almost Jamesian in its obliquity. This seems appropriate in that, it becomes clear, gay people had in those day to be terribly oblique about who they were. Renault, who lived with a female companion, is sympathetic, but it is interesting to note that she promulgates some of the accepted wisdom of her time with regard to homosexuality, giving the protagonist, for example, an absent father and a domineering mother. I wonder what bromides about homosexuality and everything else that are being put about today we will chuckle at tomorrow.
- Torii Shozo. Edited and Translated by Taylor Mignon: Bearded Cones & Pleasure Blades: The Collected Poems of Torii Shozo
Surrealism generally works better on the canvas than on the page, but Taylor Mignon's translations of the poetry of the avant-garde poet Torii Shozo reminds me that literary surrealism can also be rewarding. As with surrealist paintings, surrealist poems work best when they have formal integrity, and when they throw off at least a few filaments connecting them to a world like the one in which we live. Torii's poems pass this test (and for a devotee of thrillers, the references throughout to the aesthetics of noir, to a world where trench-coated private eyes would not be out of place, are welcome).
Don DeLillo: Point Omega
Reading late DeLillo of late, I was slightly less than completely satisfied with Falling Man (see below), but was entirely enraptured with Point Omega. Here are the hypnotic sentences, the world as complex as life, and a formal shape that can make his books so compelling, so beautiful. I think of American novelists of DeLillo's generation, and when the others have fallen away, it's clear to me that it is DeLillo and Pynchon to whom we will always be eager to return.
John Berger: From A to X: A Story in Letters
John Berger is our best—our only really good?—engaged novelist. The issues explored in his novels always transcend, even as they include, day-to-day politics and are never trivialized or sentimentalized. The art in his novels is never buried beneath agitprop. His epistolary novel, From A to X, is the latest in a line of wonders. His late style glows.
Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Stuttering Bishop
Erle Stanley Gardiner's Perry Mason books seem to have been among Guy Davenport's favorite diversions, and that was enough to motivate me to buy the five on offer at a junk shop in a small California town. I was not disappointed with the earliest written from that stack, and experienced a bit of unearned nostalgia for a time when drivers seemed to routinely stock their cars with pints of whisky.
Don DeLillo: Falling Man: A Novel
Every DeLillo novel is a gift, and considering the austerity and intelligence that characterizes DeLillo's vision of our time one might have expected his 9/11 novel to be the 9/11 novel. It isn't, I don't think, in part because of the cypher of a character around whom the novel turns, a cypher who is never quite satisfyingly ambiguous or illuminating. Still, as with every DeLillo novel there are sentences, paragraphs, that make one's jaw drop.