Seedy side of town

If you didn’t count the ‘dead’ moods he was sane enough. In fact, he was probably too sane, too normal. If only he was a little more erratic, if only he had a little fire, a little originality or audacity, it might have been a different story. A different story with Netta and all along the line. 

Hangover Square 2Hangover Square · Patrick Hamilton · 1941
Europa, 2006 · 334 pages, paperback

George Harvey Bone is in love with Netta Longdon. He’s infatuated with her, taken in by her beauty. Netta can offer nothing else: she’s an idler, a failed actress who leads men on til their wallets are empty. But George (no, not George, George in his dead moods) knows he must kill her; it’s the only sensible thing to do. This George doesn’t know who Netta is, but yes, it’s a sorry fact that he must kill her. Continue reading

Roberto Bolaño: 2666

It’s a verbal labyrinth; it’s a zoetrope of rape and murder and prison violence; it’s a deep sea fish that crawls, impossibly, through the Sonora desert; it’s a world in which the Virgin winks and the whores are cross-eyed.

2666 22666 · Roberto Bolaño · 2004
Natasha Wimmer translation · Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008 · 893 pages, hardcover

There is no summary for this book. 2666 is Bolaño’s final opus, published posthumously one year after his death in 2003. Its five parts are incongruous but have a tip-of-the-tongue commonality that sucks them toward one point: Santa Teresa, Sonora, Mexico. Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s literary executor, writes in an addendum to the FSG edition that the novel’s title references a passage from one of Bolaño’s previous novels, Amulet, which he had published five years before 2666:

Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or in 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.

And 2666 really is a cemetery of sorts and one that inters all the creepiness of something crawling beneath the eyelid of its many corpses.

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In more ways than one an empty nest

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney did everything exactly as it should be done for her novel The Nest, and the result is an amateur first novel that is more eager than earnest.

Sweeney, The Nest
The Nest · 
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Harper Collins, 2016 · 353 pages, paperback

The “rules” of novel writing show through in the novel’s structure, and Sweeney’s prose sometimes belies the probable reach for a thesaurus (I know it sounds fancier, but “purview” ≠ “view,” and when your writing is usually conversational, the use of the 4th or 5th definition of a word stands out terribly: a “premeditated” pregnancy is technically correct, but…) There isn’t any innovation in the writing and, unless your own life dovetails with those of her selfish mid-forties New Yorker protagonists, you likely won’t find reason to care about them.

Unfortunately for Sweeney’s novel, good (or at least three-dimensional) characters are the only thing that could make this story not vapid.

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Fugue state

Steppenwolf is two parts opera, one part philosophy and one part dreamstate, all of it laced with cocaine and limned in neon – oh, and balanced on the four hands of Vishnu. It’s a bit of a trip.

Steppenwolf

Steppenwolf · Hermann Hesse · 1927
Basil Creighton translation · Picador, 2015 · 218 pages, paperback

Harry Haller barely makes out the invitation carefully etched into the church door: Magic Theater. Entrance not for everybody. For Madmen only! He’d love to go inside! His mind is filled with torments, with a dissonance that clashes more violently as he tries to wend through it and sort out exactly who he is and what he thinks. Poor Harry, he turns up only despair and the pathetic simplification of the Steppenwolf: Man and Beast; it’s a Faustian dichotomy of his soul that gives him no peace. Though he’s yet to learn it, Harry wants nothing more than to rend his soul from his body and mind, and briefly – oh, very briefly because he’s so in fear of it – he thinks of suicide.

And all of this (but particularly death) is with an aim at immortality. True to Hermann Hesse’s own dabbling in Eastern mythology, his Steppenwolf Harry Haller, in thirsting for immortality, is actually scavenging for reincarnation. And true to classic German literature, Steppenwolf the novel is heavy on philosophy. But this is no treatise (despite the inclusion of one given to Harry by a man clearly from this elusive Magic Theater).

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Perfect victim: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (whose original Swedish title, Män som hatar kvinnor, translates to Men Who Hate Women) lives far beyond the confines of its nearly 600 pages because, as sensationalist as a few of Larsson’s scenes are, we know them to be real torments in this present world. Sadists exist. They hide their hobby well. The world goes on. Stieg Larsson’s thriller is a punch in the face that we understand that reality.

Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo · Stieg Larsson · 2005
Reg Keeland translation · Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2011 · 590 pages, paperback

Henrik Vanger, CEO of Vanger Corporation, hires Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter reeling from a recent libel conviction, to look into his niece Harriet’s disappearance. It’s a case that has tried the patience of the investigating cops (and others in the Vanger family) and that has become Henrik’s obsession for the past 40 years. Blomkvist pokes around in the Vanger family chronicle, at first merely indulging Henrik his obsession, but bit by bit he uncovers new evidence until everything just blows up toward the end and Larsson shows us what he’s capable of writing.

Harriet’s disappearance is only one part to the crime, and it’s a crime that just won’t quit.

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Wedding bells, they ring a death knell

Santiago Nasar was already dead when they came for him. He was lost in the hubbub of one celebration melting into another. How could this murder have happened when everyone knew it would? Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold contains the death of a man, the guilt of a town and the machismo that celebrates one sin at the behest of another.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Chronicle of a Death Foretold · Gabriel García Márquez · 1982
Gregory Rabassa translation · Vintage, 2003 · 120 pages, paperback

The revelries of the previous night’s nuptials pour into the wee hours of the morning like so much cane liquor, and the sex is a release, and the sex is without its agonies and now realization dawns and the flows of revelry and purity are stoppered by a mute pause.

There’s no blood on the bedsheet.

(Why is there no blood on the bedsheet? There must be blood on the bedsheet!) – and it’s rage as Bayardo San Roman returns his deflowered virgin to the house of her parents. And now the noise is not wedding bells, but instead the clangor of the docks that travels inland as the five o’clock hour wanes. The whistles scream and the bishop’s arrival is sounded in the square and Santiago Nasar is dead.

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Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao

Propaganda is only a paper tiger; paper books are the ones with teeth and oh! how they bite! Sijie’s novel shows the underbelly of China’s re-education program, its failure a fait acompli from the beginning.

Balzac and the Little Chines Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress · Dai Sijie
Ina Rilke translation · Anchor Books, 2001 · 184 pages, paperback

The violin, its varnished wood smooth, reflects the embers. It fails to be a toy of the Western bourgeoisie when the sonata cut by its bow is given a new name: “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” An enemy music made ally by a lie.

The village headman contemplates. Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao? The violin may stay.

The Great Leap Forward was, of course, a Great Leap Backward, and in the same vein China’s re-education program was a mandate for ignorance.

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Pop! Pop! Popcorn and balloons, Pennywise is back!

It swells and swells (feeds and feeds). It’s bloated now, inflamed, the boils growing ever larger until Derry, Maine, ruptures in spewed sewage and fallen power lines and 55-mph winds that kill with the things their currents carry. Strokes the clock tower misses at 5 a.m., at 6, at 7 instead show up mortally in the brain of the old cop who knew the kids who knew Its secret back in 1958.

ItIt · Stephen King· 1986
Scribner, 2016 · 1153 pages, paperback

It is one town’s evils given monstrous reign and, like Georgie Denbrough’s newspaper boat that floats down Jackson street on a tide of gray floodwater, Stephen King’s novel takes adulthood and folds it up – creasing at the corners, tucking in the flaps – into a kid’s plaything. Let the good times roll!

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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

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

A Room with a ViewWhere Angels Fear to Tread · E.M. Forster · 1905
Everyman’s Library, 2011 · 250 pages, hardcover

Philip Herriton is half-mad with indignation that Lilia, widow to his brother Charles, should have her head turned by an ass with all the charms of precocious desire. To put a stop to a very bad and very thoughtless marriage, Philip leaves behind the straight-laced ways of  England 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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