The first quarter of the Masthead’s second year is drawing to a close – a quick look at the past three months:
Books reviewed: 8 (7 novels and one collection of short stories, Steinbeck’s The Long Valley)
Translated fiction: 2 (from 1 language, Russian)
New-to-me authors: 5 (Buckley, Clarke, Greene, Obioma and Tartt)
Oldest book: Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886)
Newest book: Obioma’s The Fishermen (2016)
Longest book: Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (1006 pages)
Shortest book: Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (52 pages)
A pithy recap of each book read and reviewed here since January 15:
A recent trip to Half Price Books and a stop at B&N brought in some new reads:
V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas
Giovanni Boccaccio, “Mrs. Rosie and the Priest” (stories from The Decameron)
Dezső Kosztolányi, Skylark
Stephen King, The Stand
Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
Ivan Ilyich is a comer. Promotion after promotion, he’s making a steady climb in the government. And though each promotion is accompanied by extra roubles (as is only proper), he and his wife are in constant straits. With each rise in status, they’re moving in ever more opulent circles.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich · Leo Tolstoy · 1884-‘86
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 52 pages, paperback
To Ivan it’s a headache. To Ivan it’s fakery. To Ivan…well, it was the same as with all people who are not exactly rich, but who want to resemble the rich, and for that reason only resemble each other.
Like much of his work, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich snubs affectation in all its guises. With Ivan Ilyich though, this putting on of airs is a suffocation when time is running short. Ivan Ilyich is dying, so please will you stop pretending?
The Kreuzer Sonata is about two things: one, a man past his prime who allows himself to be cucked by a musician, kills his wife, and blames it all on Beethoven; and two, a past due morality in sexual affairs written by a man who struggled to reconcile mortality with religion and right passion.
The Kreuzer Sonata · Leo Tolstoy · 1889
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 71 pages, paperback
How he came to murder his wife: the perspective of the novella is one year after the fact. Pozdnyshev is a fornicator turned loyal husband who got his comeuppance in a disloyal wife, and now, while on the train, he finds in a fellow passenger a man willing to listen to him as he reasons out his moral penury. Continue reading
We have a too easy capacity for convincing ourselves of anything – for conceiving, nursing, coddling – an obsession, of holding onto one thing (that might not even be true) out of desperation, and Donna Tartt renders this perfectly in The Little Friend.
The Little Friend · Donna Tartt
Vintage, 2002 · 624 pages, paperback
A certain psychopathology colors her novel, percolates, and forces through the kudzu vines as the decisive factor in the novel’s very density. There’s always that shadow of the 9-year-old Robin hanging from the Tupelo tree. Back and forth, back and forth, a small body rocked from light to dark.
The Fishermen had much to say and ended by saying very little.
The Fishermen · Chigozie Obioma
Back Bay Books, 2016 · 295 pages, paperback
Akure, Nigeria. The Harmattan winds die out. Dust motes sift lazily to the ground. One brother stabs another, and the madman still limps around town, despised and yet hearkened. This freshly swept town, sere and cracked by the Nigerian sun’s whitewash glare, exposes little more than the unholy. Continue reading
I’ll have reviews for Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen up in the next couple of weeks, but in the meantime I’ve been thinking about the importance of exposition. It was Tartt’s novel that got me thinking about it because she wrote it with such inventiveness in The Little Friend. Continue reading
Buckley puffs out the talking points of both sides in the tobacco wars, and the result is ludicrous and delightfully incorrect in this day of safe spaces – thank YOU for daring, Mr. Buckley.
Thank 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.
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. 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.
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 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, Greene 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.