For the love of books! 2018 year in review

With the sun packed away by half past 4, we’ve nearly paid back our debt and have only its interest left. Though I won’t really feel it ‘til mid-January, when the rays shine for a noticeably longer interval, I can hardly complain: winter, so far, has been kind – and it’s lefse time here in MN!

In just under a week we’ll begin to creep toward spring little by little, but with that renewal comes the year’s end and that means a review of the past 12 months.

What has been new here at the Masthead? For one, I’ve read a great many more first novels than I’d have expected of myself (and just added three more to my shelves this month). I chanced for a spy thriller that wasn’t and a Cain and Abel story whose conflict could hardly justify the outcome. But I also risked a fantasy that endeared itself to me at once and a novel of growing up that told his contemporaries that 24-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald had promise.

There were books that have graced my shelves for years unread only to give me a good time this year: I found my receipt for the plays of Sophocles tucked neatly inside it; I had bought it August 29, 2015. The myth of Oedipus is more than Freud would have us believe. Others I brought home and started almost that same day, like Larraquy’s queer little Comemadre. That’s the beauty of a growing library and buying to my heart’s whims. I’ve amassed a collection whose books hold my interest in an ebb and flow tide. Unread books from three years ago don’t concern me; I’ll read them when the mood strikes and enjoy them all the better.

But, for the love of books, what else was new this year? I laughed through the pulp of Thank You for Smoking, and I felt too keenly the worry inside each of Tanizaki’s Makioka sisters.

I read a book I felt was missing in my younger years, but 1984 didn’t hit me like many will say it hit them. I found it overly didactic and made dull through the years by every amateur politico’s shouting over it.

And I read a bit of sci-fi, but while it was a good diversion, Dick’s electric sheep still felt like a bridging novel – but then, the book before it and the book after it were each so good that maybe I shrugged it off with undue haste. Or maybe I just don’t like sci-fi so much.

Regardless, it’s been a good 12 months, and by the time December is up there should be at least one – and likely two – more reviews before recapping the year in full and making my picks for what was tops in 2018. Come January, the Masthead will blow out the candles on its second year of book reviews with the wish for another year of good reading – just about the time that sunshine sparkles ‘til half past 5.

As always, happy reading.

– EMH

New books: December

new books december

When every purchase gives you a bounce-back coupon…!

Garth Risk Hallberg, City on Fire
Omar El Akkad, American War
Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves

Fridlund’s chilly Minnesota novel is likely going to be my next book. History of Wolves was a finalist for the 2017 Man Booker – and it’s Fridlund’s first novel. I can get behind a MN girl who writes good stuff 😉

I’ve been thinking of picking up the Hallberg for a verrry long time. Read a few pages here and there and know it gave the author a sizeable advance: a healthy $2 mil. The same guy who recommended American War to me (and who knows my reading tastes) seconded City on Fire as being more than worth my time. So…I bought it!

The Adolescent: Dostoevsky the dramatist

School-age grudges and backroom bargains line up the chips against ladies’ secrets and counterfeit fathers in The Adolescent, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s penultimate novel and one that built on his previous work with surprising maturity.

The AdolescentThe Adolescent · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1875
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2004 · 608 pages, paperback

Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, said of Dostoevsky that the man “seems to have been chosen by the destiny of Russian letters to become Russia’s greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels.” Though he was talking about The Brothers Karamazov, which Nabokov called a “straggling play,” the comment holds for The Adolescent, a gossipy soap opera done in high style. Continue reading

Oedipus Rex

We all know the basics: Oedipus offed his father and married his mother.

Three Theban PlaysThe Three Theban Plays: Antigone – Oedipus the King – Oedipus at Colonus
Sophocles · c. 441-406 BC
Robert Fagles translation · Penguin, 2008 · 430 pages, paperback

Oedipus the King, though, isn’t about the incestuous prophecy, but instead about Oedipus’ relentless pursuit – no matter the cost – of the truth, what he does with that truth and how he’s treated in spite of it all.

More than the story of ancient myth and its piecemeal modern echoes – thank you, Herr Freud – Sophocles gave us the measure of the man: integrity unmatched, good intentions to the last, a sense of justice that places no king above the law.

It’s a shame we only remember the sullied reputation. Continue reading

Lois Lowry, The Giver

For Hamlet, death was the great equalizer: kings and slaves decay just the same. But for Lois Lowry, in her regimented community of The Giver, it’s life that’s the leveler of men.

Lowry, the GiverThe Giver · Lois Lowry · 1993
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 · 225 pages, paperback

The Giver peeks into a hermetically sealed life, one lived entirely, to use today’s jargon, within a safe space. The Giver shows us that the results of strict equality and protected contentment are extraordinarily far from the imagined kumbaya.

Continue reading

Red Sparrow is red herring espionage

Reading Jason Matthews’ spy novel Red Sparrow is like wrapping Le Carré around a dime store romance, a reputable disguise for when you’re embarrassed to be seen with it. Red Sparrow is a thriller for appearances’ sake only (and because CIA men don’t write romance)? A shame – because Matthews has real talent.

Matthews, Red SparrowRed Sparrow · Jason Matthews · 2013
Scribner, 2014 · 431 pages, paperback

Continue reading

Sickness, Thomas Mann and the nihilism of reality

Mann, the Magic MountainThe Magic Mountain · Thomas Mann · 1924
John E. Woods translation · Vintage, 1996 · 720 pages, paperback

There are few novels that give sickness its due. There are even fewer that play with it as a state of mind or treat it as the defunct policy of nation states.

Though Thomas Mann began work on The Magic Mountain in 1912 when he visited his ailing wife at a sanatorium (which served as the model for the Berghof of his novel), his writing soon bent to a different angle when war broke out two years later. By the time he completed it in 1924, the sickness of the body had become further distorted into the sickness of the body politic, and his novel became a reification of the period’s irrationalism. Continue reading

¿Que dijiste?

Comemadre feels like a troll, and we can’t figure out if Larraquy is an actual proponent of the prurient and the shocking, of the crass and irreverent, in modern art, or if he’s cleverer than all of us and having a damn good time with parody. Either way, Larraquy took exhibitionist art and made it literary.

ComemadreComemadre · Roque Larraquy · 2010
Heather Cleary translation · Coffee House Press, 2018 · 129 pages, paperback

Where is the tipping point that turns life into unlife? What does that infinitesimally small tick on the clock feel like, sound like, taste like? And can we replicate it for the living?

Argentinian author Roque Larraquy’s novel is a century’s quest for understanding the in-between. Larraquy sweeps religion aside, turns a deaf ear to the philosophers and rejects blasé methods of questioning. Instead he approaches the metaphysical realm from a purely physical standpoint, dabbling first in guillotines and then moving on to live installation art. Through the length of his novel, the body is central to his question: what is the moment of death like?

Continue reading