Tarred and feathered

Buckley exaggerates the talking points of both sides in the tobacco debate. The result is ludicrous and delightfully incorrect in this day of safe spaces – thank YOU for daring, Mr. Buckley.

Thank You for SmokingThank You for Smoking · Christopher Buckley · 1994
Random House, 2006 · 272 pages, paperback

Nick Naylor is the PR guy for Big Tobacco in Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking, a laugh-out-loud satire that’s funny because it’s true.

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Magic more formidable than ships made of rain

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell feels like the best of British literature, combining  Sherlock Holmes eccentricity with the warm/cool, fast/slow, fun/grim adventure of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and then dropping in a bit of Wilkie Collins’ gothic ambiguity. In short, Susanna Clarke’s novel is a fantasy that has in it a lot more than a wonderful story.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell · Susanna Clarke · 2004
Bloomsbury, 2017 · 1006 pages, paperback

Magic has gone out of England. Magicians as they are now are just ordinary men with their noses in books and whose tongues form words of speculation instead of incantation. Magic isn’t something that is done – oh no, not anymore – magic is something to be theorized, opined about, written down in lines of rhetoric…magic in this age, the Age of Napoleon, is only an armchair philosophy. Enter stuffy Mr. Norrel, recluse of Hurtfew Abbey, practical magician.

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“Remember me!”

Though it lacks the celerity of its titular continental train, Graham Greene’s novel Orient Express still bears the fervid desires of fleeting travel.

Orient ExpressOrient Express · Graham Greene · 1933
Penguin, 2004 · 197 pages, paperback

Greene’s novel feels, to borrow a line from its prose, “as if all the floors of a house fell and left the walls standing.” With Orient Express Greene puts our perceptions of the temporary to great effect. He doesn’t exhort us to seize the day! as seems most common for stories that trade in the temporal. Instead, he promotes its unreal and delaying nature, the idea that this, too, shall pass and that, by extension, its affairs don’t actually exist. Moreover, he uses the more common aspect (i.e. making use of a moment) to etch more deeply this feeling of unreality: the rare instances in the novel where his characters do act on impulse are immediately subverted by their juxtaposition with the mere thoughts, the unfulfilled wonderment, of what going all the way might entail.

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John Steinbeck, The Long Valley

The stories in The Long Valley are sly. Their coloring may be Steinbeck through and through, but their tone is surprising. Sure, the men get down on their haunches and do some figgerin’ while the sun scars the black earth, but damnit! there’s humor in these stories! There’s suspense in these stories!

Steinback, Long ValleyThe Long Valley · John Steinbeck · 1936-‘38
Library of America, 1996 (The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings) · 205 pages, hardcover

Many of the stories in The Long Valley, namely “The White Quail” and “The Snake,” coax us to expect a certain ending, and yet, lurking on the last page or in the final paragraph, is a (usually very violent) surprise or a subtle turn of phrase that drops the floor of your stomach real quick.

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Interlude: end of Q4 at the Masthead

The Masthead will be celebrating its first birthday tomorrow, January 15 – here’s the final breakdown of books read and reviewed in 2017:

Books reviewed: 34
Pages read: 12,487
Longest book: King’s It (1153 pages)
Shortest book: Shakespeare’s Othello (82 pages)
The full breakdown? Here’s a look:

books read by number of pages

Translated fiction: 13 (from 7 languages: Arabic, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish)
New-to-me authors: 21 (everyone excepting Capote, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, King, Mahfouz, Rushdie, Shakespeare and Vonnegut)
Oldest book: Shakespeare’s Othello (1603)
Newest book: Tóbín’s House of Names (2017; Auster’s 4321 was also published in 2017 but earlier in the year)

And as always, a quick recap of each book read and reviewed here over the past three months (find all of this year’s reviews linked in the review archive):

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
A sound opener to Larsson’s Millenium series: he’s piqued our interest in the non-cheapskate way: the main story of this first novel wraps up by the end; it’s his characters who demand us to pick up the second. Intricate plotting, strong characters and a good mystery (or two: Salandar’s her own mystery really).

Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse
This one’s a wild read! A little carnival veneer slicks up some good German philosophizing. Hesse had a good bit to say about defining your life, and he said it in an entertaining way.

The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Amateur writing and an insipid story about the loss of some trust fund money combine in this contemporary to make you roll your eyes. That said, this author could probably do some good work if she were to take a risk with her writing; this one’s too conventional to stand out.

 

2666, Roberto Bolaño
Vulgar in the most pristine way and a real maze of clever writing, this one’s a rough read and all the better for it: its loose plotting and open structure are both to its credit.

Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton
A modern-sounding novel from the blackout London of WWII, Hamilton writes split-personality perfectly and makes you adore his very messed-up George Harvey Bone.

The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway
True Hemingway style for how the story takes shape (i.e. between the lines).This one has a lot to say about love and about being your own person. But know this: it’s a weaker novel than his more major works.

The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck
There’s not even the suggestion of cheerfulness in this one: a novel beautifully written and describing through the deaths (yes, multiple) of one girl the havoc of 20th century Central Europe and the East-West divide.

What’s first in the new year? John Steinbeck’s short story collection, The Long Valley (expected publication date for review is January 19  *edit: January 21); Graham Greene’s Orient Express and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Cheers!

Q1 wrap-up
Q2 wrap-up
Q3 wrap-up
Browse the review archive

End credits: books read 2017

 

The Idiot
Fyodor Dostoevsky

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

Shame
Salman Rushdie

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood

The Stranger
Albert Camus

The Beggar · The Thief and the Dogs · Autumn Quail
Naguib Mahfouz

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon

Othello
William Shakespeare

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Truman Capote

4321
Paul Auster

Murder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie

The Enchanted Wanderer (and other stories)
Nikolai Leskov

Twelve Angry Men
Reginald Rose

The Fellowship of the Ring
JRR Tolkien

Snow
Orhan Pamuk

House of Names
Colm Tóbín

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins

A Room with a View
EM Forster

Deadeye Dick
Kurt Vonnegut

Where Angels Fear to Tread
EM Forster

City of Thieves
David Benioff

It
Stephen King

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Dai Sijie

Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Gabriel García Márquez

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Stieg Larsson

Steppenwolf
Hermann Hesse

The Nest
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

2666
Roberto Bolaño

Hangover Square
Patrick Hamilton

The Garden of Eden
Ernest Hemingway

The End of Days
Jenny Erpenbeck

Happy New Year!

Twentieth century elegy

The End of DaysThe End of Days · Jenny Erpenbeck · 2012
Susan Bernofsky translation · Portobello, 2014 · 238 pages, hardcover

The End of Days is a gray novel, and Jenny Erpenbeck’s writing is a dirge for the people of 20th century Central Europe. She gave the Galician woman at the center of her novel five lives (or rather, she gave her one life with five possibilities for her death, asking after each death what would have come of her had she lived a little longer).

The 20th century contained in it both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and such a distinct thing as reunified Germany. And of course, there was everything in between. Each grave dug is dug from a life fashioned by this same Europe. Continue reading

For the love of books!

I started the Masthead in January as a space devoted to reading and writing. I had the aim to broaden my reading to include those areas I’d neglected – mystery, fantasy, contemporary, drama, dystopia, thriller (can you tell I’m not one for genre fiction?) – and authors I’d never read. I had never written a book review; I’d never written out more than marginal notes scrimped onto 3×6 notepaper that could double as a bookmark.

But the books never did stick with me for very long, no matter how much I loved them (I wrote a little about this here). For the love of books I did something more when I started the Masthead, and when I read over those reviews I’ve already written, the whole novel comes back to me effortlessly – the plot, yes, but everything else, too: its characters, its stylistic genius (or stylistic mess), the feelings I felt…I’ve even had an excitement to read it again (or, in two particular cases, strong reasons to purge it from my shelves…)

I started out easy when I wrote “Pity the fool,” a review of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. I’d already read a lot of his work, so writing this one wasn’t much of a stretch.

But I was in new territory with my second review, “Diamond in the rough.” Not only was Anthony Doerr a new-to-me author and All the Light We Cannot See a book much hyped, but when I wrote the review for it I found myself on the other side of popular opinion. Doerr did not regale me as he had so many others.

Doerr aside, I’ve found myself taken with a few new-to-me authors and astounded by feats of ingenuity in prose. I’ve picked up books I may otherwise never have – I saw Hangover Square at another blogger’s site and ended up myself quite taken with it! You won’t find Patrick Hamilton at Barnes & Noble unfortunately, and no length of browsing would have brought him to me.

Sure I’ve read some favorites. This project’s to be a fun one and a year with no Hemingway or Rushdie would be such a sorry thing. So no, not everything’s been new, but I have read more from many of those genres I’d neglected and I’m excited to continue the venture in the New Year.

The Masthead has one more book review for you before its quarter ends (and its first birthday pops) on January 15, and the first two weeks of January will be full of end-of-year reflections, recaps and discussions because after all, we’re all here for the love of books!

– EMH