Pawns of the colonel

Riddle me this: how do you find a dozen eggs during a siege that has left people to shoot horses for their meat and boil the glue in book bindings for its protein?

City of Thieves

City of Thieves · David Benioff
Penguin, 2009 · 258 pages, paperback

Lev, the looter, and Kolya, the deserter who isn’t really a deserter (he left his unit because his “balls were ringing like a couple of church bells”), are two young men caught up in the summary justice of Leningrad under siege. Looting and desertion demand execution. But a powerful colonel has a daughter who’s to be married. The colonel’s decree? Let there be cake – and cake demands eggs.

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Fools rush in: E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread

The legno trundles through the turns in a wood that leads, ascending, to the small, picaresque, dirty Italian town of Monteriano and, within its walls, to Lilia and to Gino, devil’s temptation.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

– Dante Alighieri, Inferno, canto I, 1-3

These first lines of Dante’s Inferno needle their way into Philip Herriton’s head as he leaves behind the straight-laced ways of his Sawston home and comes out on the side of a village whose character is one that throbs with impulsivity and slumbers in its laziness.

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A cupola full of guns, it runneth over

The bullet drives smoothly into the swelling womb of a pregnant housewife eight blocks over, and Rudy Waltz, in this Mother’s Day double murder, finds himself Deadeye Dick for eternity.

Deadeye Dick 2Deadeye Dick · Kurt Vonnegut · 1982
Dial Press, 2010 · 271 pages, paperback

He didn’t mean to hit anyone; if he aimed at nothing, nothing is what he’d hit. What a sharpshooter! Twelve years old and Rudy Waltz has a lifetime of guilt ahead of him.
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You’re forgetting your Italy, Dear

A Room with a View

A Room with a View · E.M. Forster · 1908
Everyman’s Library, 2011 · 217 pages, hardcover

Oh, Italy! The tourists in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View are stumbling over each other in their haste to appreciate Giotto’s frescoes, but they can’t appreciate them until they’ve learned which are his (and so which among all of the frescoes are allowed to be appreciated). They affect intelligence. There’s nothing new in a view so stifled.

And there’s nothing emphatic in erudition, not when it’s had for making a point. Continue reading

Currently reading…

upcoming reviews 2

That yellow rain slicker, the gray rapids of a flooded street…the little newspaper boat that floats toward the stormdrain…and then the carnival smell of popcorn and the shining silver eyes of Pennywise the Clown as he offers up a balloon to young Georgie Denbrough.

The first scene in Stephen King’s IT is one of my favorite openers of any novel. It’s been probably two years since I last read any King. A new IT movie comes out September 8th though, and the novel is out in a great new edition from Scribner, so…I’m getting back into it! Truth be told, I left this one 70 pages to the end last time I read it (really, 94% through the book and I left off!) I remember the story slowing considerably toward the end, but from what I’ve heard I was at the edge of something good.

Kurt Vonnegut who, when reading him is to do mental gymnastics, is hit-or-miss for me. Slaughter-house Five is a great book and Sirens of Titan amused me last summer, but this one – Deadeye Dick – is so far just a jumble of stuff that is kind of a chore to read. I’m only about a fifth of the way into it, and I hope he’ll come around to please me with the usual zaniness.

I’m nearly finished with E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View and want to publish the review by end of week. Forster was a bit like an English Edith Wharton: wry, compassionate and, at times, acerbic.

What are you reading?

Interlude: second quarter wrap-up at the Masthead

The Masthead is closing out its second quarter! A quick look at the past three months:

Books reviewed: 8 (6 novels, 1 book of short stories and 1 play, Rose’s Twelve Angry Men)
Translated fiction: 2 (from 2 languages: Russian and Turkish)
New-to-me authors: 7: all except Tolkien were new for me!
Oldest book: Collins’ The Woman in White (1860)
Newest book: Tóibín’s House of Names  (2017) *but…it’s the oldest story 😉
Longest book: Collins’ The Woman in White (672 pages)
Shortest book: Rose’s Twelve Angry Men (73 pages)

A pithy recap of each book read and reviewed here since April 15:

4321, Paul Auster
A master book of meta-fiction! Auster’s recent novel is full of what ifs and, with the help of four Archie Fergusons, tells us there’s no point in dwelling on the past (or, for that matter, on the future either).

Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
Disappointing. A cut-and-dry mystery that lays bare the evidence and alibis of 12 people and then virtually ignores it in favor of a hunch felt by Christie’s cult hero, Monsieur Poirot.

The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, Nikolai Leskov
A book to keep close at hand, there is so much to these stories! Leskov, he just wants to tell you a story, even if it you think it’s a little far-fetched. A little magic and a little fairy tale.

Twelve Angry Men, Reginald Rose
When the jury couldn’t give a damn but the verdict is life or death…what then?


The Fellowship of the Ring
, J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien’s classic fantasy plays on our simplest fears. Middle-earth is alive in its history, in its shadows, in its very hills…terror crescendos in an instant and drops back in the next. Prose and poetry and characters – every one of them satisfies.

Snow, Orhan Pamuk
This one could not have contributed to Pamuk’s Nobel. A good premise and the potential for artistic politics but instead…reads like daytime T.V.

House of Names, Colm Tóibín
A modern retelling of an ancient Greek story. Tóibín ennervates his characters through the tricks he pulls with linguistics and brings the cursed House of Atreus (with its hand-me-down violence) into our popular fiction.

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
Victorian gothic: all sneaking suspicion and none of the usual Victorian fussiness; a thriller to meet our modern thirst.

♠ Be sure to check out the Masthead’s first quarter wrap-up and the review archive! ♠

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White hinges on identity; on forgery; on rank suspicion, on suspicion that gets the better of us and makes us rash instead of rational.

The Woman in White

The Woman in White · Wilkie Collins · 1860
Penguin, 2009 · 672 pages, hardcover

The Woman in White is both a sensationalist thriller and a social commentary. Collins takes his shots at the marriage laws and rules of inheritance of 1850s England, but he provides a creeping horror alongside it, the same kind of horror where you realize how very trapped you are and how powerless you are to get out. A close marriage, the words invalid and invalidate; the creeping horror doesn’t confine itself to money, nor even to love, but asserts itself as an erasure of recognition.

And this erasure necessitates a different kind of forgery – that of reclamation and the forging of a new life.

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Bookshelf tour!

I think a person’s favorite Hemingway says a lot about them, and I think the way a person organizes their bookshelves says a lot about them, too. Not sure what these shelves will tell you about me (I’ll let you decide that), but here’s how I’ve chosen to organize my books!

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Violence begets violence: Tóibín’s House of Names

Food merely whets our appetite, sharpens our teeth; meat makes us ravenous for more meat, as death is ravenous for more death. Murder makes us ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction.

House of Names

House of Names · Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 2017 · 275 pages, hardcover

The curse placed upon the House of Atreus…Colm Tóibín’s most recent novel, House of Names, is a retelling of an ancient story, of Clytemnestra’s story. It tells of her husband’s, King Agamemnon’s, sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia. It tells of their son Orestes’ escape and their daughter Electra’s imprisonment. It tells of Clytemnestra’s affair with the prisoner-come-king Aegisthus and the manipulation they wrought in the name of love and power.

Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes – Tóibín tells the story through their eyes. His finesse lies in his control of language and perspective, which shift with each narrative. His words are of the simplest nature, but he pulls the strings of linguistics to make the words bleed from his pages. Continue reading

Political theater, poetic farce

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow begins as a novel that had a good shot at feeding the intellect but instead contorted itself into a soap opera complete with convenient fixes for its weaknesses.Snow - Kar

Snow · Orhan Pamuk · 2002
Maureen Freely translation · Vintage, 2005 · 463 pages, paperback

A political coup that manipulates the theater to confuse and gain power? A string of suicides inspired by Turkey’s uncertain position on the East-West divide? An exiled poet who just might find enlightenment in the forsaken streets of his home town? Pamuk’s writing in Snow (originally published in Turkey as Kar) is too placid for the story he wanted to tell. We read the few moments of heightened drama in this novel in a detached way, as if we’re too tired to keep our eyes open and our brains can’t hold onto the words we’re reading: we just don’t care.  Continue reading