Monday, July 15, marked the halfway point in the Masthead’s third year of book reviews…a slow quarter, but nonfiction does that to me (that, and giving much more of my time to newspaper journalism)! Still writing, still reading, still fascinated by Rockefeller. And, unrelated, far too excited about the 50th anniversary of the moon landing!
But back to the books: Here’s a looksie at the past three months and a good prayer the next three will bring a few more than two!
Books reviewed: 2 (I am a little ashamed 😳)
Translated fiction: 1 (from Ukrainian)
New-to-me authors: 1 (Andrey Kurkov)
Oldest AND newest book: both Grace and Penguin were published in 1996
Longest book: Atwood’s Alias Grace (567 pages)
Shortest book: Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin (228 pages)
Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov
Kurkov’s novel of post-Soviet Ukraine is of a feeling that might usually be thought impossible: a schizoid optimism.
Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s double murder mystery is taken from history, but her story of Grace Marks missed the mark. Grace makes for okay reading but only if you’re not aware of what this woman can do.
Browse the Review Archive
2019 mini reviews:
2018 mini reviews:
2017 mini reviews:
Surprised ya, didn’t I, throwing some nonfiction in there??
I think the last nonfiction I read was Caro’s biographical series on Lyndon Johnson. That was three years ago. It’s high time I had more history in me.
Thoroughly enjoying Ron Chernow’s Titan and living out John D. Rockefeller’s life from my porch.
Sixty pages in and points of interest…
♠ 7-year-old Rockefeller bought candy in bulk, divided it up and resold it to his siblings at a profit.
♠ His father was a mountebank with a paramour and a second life who also had a soft spot for music and bailed a violin virtuoso out of jail in exchange for his violin. He wore loud suits and would come roaring back into town with gold from God knows where to pay off debts incurred by his long-suffering actual wife (who also for a time put up with two illegitimate children of his by the housekeeper).
♠ By 13, John D. was loaning money to a farmer at 7 percent interest and had decided that rather than be a slave to money he’d prefer money to be slave to him.
♠ Shortly after saving his church from foreclosure by fundraising $2000 (about $56,000 today) at age 17, Rockefeller had decided it was best to save when you could instead of when you had to.
♠ Two years later, at age 19 and after biding his time at the failing Hewitt and Tuttle, he saw the economy was turning from bear to bull and became founding partner in a start-up commission house.
I’ve also started Heinlein’s classic Stranger in a Strange Land, a favorite sci fi of my friend’s and one I’ve been meaning to read for a few years now. Valentine Michael Smith, human raised by Martians and freshly retrieved to planet Earth, is endearing and sounds like Dobby the house elf at times (if you can grok that, my water brother). And Jubal Harshaw is hilarious; he’d have found a bro in Hugh Heffner.
What are you reading?
For an author known to upend the conventional to suit her purpose, Margaret Atwood missed the mark with Alias Grace. History called the shots in this one, and perhaps such a restraint proved too large a hurdle.
Alias Grace · Margaret Atwood · 1996
Emblem, 2014 · 567 pages, paperback
The 1843 murder of the gentleman Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper mistress Nancy Montgomery is lifted from the historical record, along with the characters of Grace Marks, the titular murderess, and James McDermott, her alleged co-conspirator.
Ripe and festering with a young girl’s maligned reputation, shifting identities, lunacy and crime, the Kinnear-Montgomery double murder should have been putty in the hands of Atwood, normally a convincing author as well as temptress to the imagination and one who has tricks for curling the corners of her sentences into sly little images…but putty it proved not to be. Continue reading
I came across this bit by Seth Riley over at The Millions, and boy…he gets it. I’d like to buy the guy a drink because who else is going to talk desert murders, prison violence and fetishized torment with me (and endure all the fevers and all the kicks and punches only to laud the cause of them afterward)? As Riley knows, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a book that splits you open and tears you up. I’m still turning the thing this way and that long after reviewing it late in 2017 and giving Bolaño top marks for ingenuity.
Since then I’ve added his Third Reich and The Insufferable Goucho to my collection. I guess I don’t hold a grudge for pain inflicted.
Addendum/Edited to add…from the comments to Riley’s piece:
Both books [2666 and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian] are kind of like moral tests, and if you keep reading through the dead babies hung on trees and sequences of rapes and murders, it’s almost like you’ve failed the test. I keep on failing. It’s gruesome, it’s horrific, but I can’t turn away.
…I think this John Fox guy gets it, too.
Death and the Penguin is a game of chance played with a stacked deck – and against a card sharp no less, one who turns the tables on this writer of obelisks. Andrey Kurkov’s novel has the sullen resentment of living fairly in an unfair world, and it has a dark humor to combat that same resentment. It’s also one that might make the lonely feel a little less alone.
Death and the Penguin · Andrey Kurkov · 1996
George Bird translation · Vintage, 2001 · 228 pages, Paperback
When you do know what’s what, it will mean there no longer is any real point to your work or to your continuing existence.
Viktor Zolotaryov writes obituaries of deputies, military officials, businessmen and others of VIP caliber in Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin. But the obituaries have a predetermined publication date – that list of notables from which Viktor has been taking his assignments is also a hitman’s register. Continue reading
April 15, 2019, marks the end of the Masthead’s first quarter to its third year celebrating the writer and his work through book reviews. Here’s a recap of the past three months:
Books reviewed: 5 (3 novels, 1 short story collection and 1 book of poetry)
Translated fiction: 2 (from 2 languages, Russian and German)
New-to-me authors: 5 (that’s every last one of ’em!)
Oldest book: Gogol’s collected fiction (1830-’42)
Newest book: Zinovieff’s Putney (2018)
Longest book: Grass’ The Tin Drum and Gogol’s collected fiction (465 pages)
Shortest book: Daley-Ward’s Bone (160 pages)
As per usual, here’s a quick look at each book read and reviewed here since January 15:
Putney, Sofka Zinovieff
Though she took up the challenge of writing on a difficult topic – child sexual abuse and statutory rape – Zinovieff’s novel flatlines as forgettable and unemotional.
The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol
Nikolai Gogol had a puckish devil-may-care attitude to the world around him, and he wrote with a keen observer’s eye to provincial customs and city life alike. The short fiction compiled here is a perfect blend of magic and reality – enjoy the ride.
Bone, Yrsa Daley-Ward
Still fresh to the literary scene, Daley-Ward’s first poetry collection is highly autobiographical but still universal in its feeling. Broken bones, mended.
Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation is eco literature without an axe to grind, and VanderMeer’s first novel to his Southern Reach trilogy shows the man’s awe of the natural world, his grasp of human psychology and his ability to write fluidly.
The Tin Drum, Günter Grass
A German Crime and Punishment and allegory on top of allegory, Grass’ major opus of wartime Poland is difficult and entirely worth it.
Browse the Review Archive
2018 mini reviews:
2017 mini reviews:
If a mid-century German Crime and Punishment exists, it’s this one by Günter Grass. The Tin Drum is a desperate mea culpa on the way to absolution.
The Tin Drum · Günter Grass · 1959
Ralph Manheim translation · MJF Books/Fine Communications, 1987 · 465 pages, hardcover
The Tin Drum is a lament from one who balked at the storm but couldn’t drum a din loud enough to stop it, and Grass’ novel is bent on understanding this psychology. But to get at those things he’s unwilling to tell us, his readers must care enough to pry into his mind.
The spirit of Grass’ most major work is secreted in his protagonist Oskar’s first readings, a dichotomy of Goethe and Rasputin. It’s a fractured spirit of rational romanticism and lurid mysticism that Hesse, perhaps, would have envied.
The Tin Drum is the first novel in Grass’ Danzig trilogy, a loosely composed series that views the interwar and wartime era through the perspective of what was then the Free City of Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland. Continue reading
Jeff VanderMeer is an adept master of the weird that is also the purposed weird, and while his creatures evoke Lovecraft, his prose is closer to that of Graham Greene and his themes reflect a mind steeped in Einstein’s relativity.
Annihilation · Jeff VanderMeer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014 · 195 pages, paperback
Annihilation is the first book of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. It’s adventure meets biological sci fi meets grotesque horror. It’s a novel that leeches and presents its poisons and cruelties as art form. Continue reading
Bone · Yrsa Daley-Ward · 2013
Penguin, 2017 · 160 pages, paperback
As title for her work, Bone educes the sentiment of its verses. Yrsa Daley-Ward’s work in this collection betrays the varied hungers in desire; the haunting, depressed bite of bad loves gnawed through to nothing; and the hardness and “deal with it” attitude needed to accost life and, maybe, to make amends. Continue reading
Reading two very different books…
The first, The Tin Drum by German writer Günter Grass, is a narrative march that thrums out a steady mea culpa for a nation caught up in ideology, temptation and grisly vision – and one torn apart time and time again. Part one of Grass’ Danzig Trilogy, it rips to shreds our understanding of interwar Germany and Hitler’s Putsch. It raises Poland, that first peon of ’39, to main battleground.
Oskar is Grass’ stunted protagonist whose two presumptive fathers (because of Mutti’s infidelity) go separate ways over the questions of Polish nationalism and German duty. His perspective is one of looking back, told from young Oskar’s eyes but with the nervy candor of an adult’s mental patient mind and the added help of a fabulist’s exaggeration. Grass is dropping little hints about his Oskar and why he is the way he is, and he’s leading me on by degrees.
At the other end of things, I’m nearly finished with Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, a biological sci fi that traipses across eco literature and the weird grotesque hand in hand with Lovecraft and Sartre. Think of it as a book that raises some fundamental questions while it offers an artist’s rendering, done in globbed and glossy oil paint, of the workings of ecology. It’s beautiful and maggoty, and I’ve not read anything like it before! It’s been growing on me like the never-ending script of its Crawler, a creature that is at the center of Annihilation and is either symbiotic with or parasitic on the mysterious Area X where the novel takes place. Getting curiouser and curiouser…