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!


Ménage à trois: Hemingway’s Garden of Eden

Hemingway’s novel dives in and out of androgyny like its two newlywed swimmers who bathe in the salted sea and grow ever darker on its pale and silted beaches. David and Catherine take their honeymoon in the off season. They do everything a little differently.

Garden of EdenThe Garden of Eden · Ernest Hemingway · 1946-‘61
Scribner, 2003 · 247 pages, paperback

David and Catherine Bourne are three months married and vacationing on the Côte d’Azur. The Garden of Eden, though, is a study of division just as much as it is one of marriage: what is yours, what is mine, what is ours. The Garden of Eden has the happiness of marriage. It has its dissolution and it has its estrangement. Continue reading

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 she’s emptied their wallets. 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 Roberto 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.

Continue reading

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 Nest is about the four bickering, entitled, petulant Plumb siblings promised a modest inheritance ($50,000 each – the “Nest”), which grew through (someone else’s) good management into $500,000 each. And yet they whine about possibly getting only $50,000 (the original – and intentioned – sum) at the end of it. Continue reading

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 · 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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Interlude: end of Q3 at the Masthead

The Masthead is closing out its third quarter! A quick look at the past three months:

Books reviewed: 7
Translated fiction: 2 (from 2 languages: French and Spanish)
New-to-me authors: 4 (Forster, Benioff, Sijie and García Márquez)
Oldest book: Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905)
Newest book: Benioff’s City of Thieves (2009)
Longest book: King’s It (1153 pages)
Shortest book: García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (120 pages)

A pithy recap of each book read and reviewed here since July 15:

A Room with a View, EM Forster
Please, just say what you think, not what your friends think! A novel that lambasts with humor our need to be exactly like everyone else (bonus: excellent views of Italy)

Deadeye Dick, Kurt Vonnegut
Copious amounts of guilt for stupid mistakes and twists of fate. This one lacks in substance until the end – a patient read, but stick with it.

Where Angels Fear to Tread, EM Forster
Do you keep your in-law’s burdens even when the blood relation dies and the in-law takes a new (and reproachable) husband? Scandal, prejudice and rue grow out of a humble Italian town and creep their way across the Channel into upright English homes.

City of Thieves, David Benioff
A compact story of Leningrad; emotive and original, adventurous and brutal, but brought down a notch by its gratuitous sex jokes and off-the-mark diction.

It, Stephen King
A tightrope walk along the “kid line” of horror and imagination

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie
Simple prose delivers the irony in China’s re-education program with a cute (not cutesy, but cute) love story to boot

Chronicle of a Death ForetoldGabriel García Márquez
The townspeople – every last one of them it seemed – knew who was to be murdered and knew who the murderers were but not one of them did anything. A novel about passivity in the face of crime.

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

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.

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.

Continue reading