Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

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.Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories

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?

Continue reading

Leo Tolstoy, the Kreuzer Sonata

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.

Kreuzer SonataThe 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

Obsession is a reasty little vengeance

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 FriendThe 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.

Continue reading

Hook, line and…sinker

The Fishermen had much to say and ended by saying very little.

The FishermenThe 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

Currently reading: Donna Tartt, Chigozie Obioma and a note on exposition

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

Tarred and feathered

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 SmokingThank 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.

Continue reading

Magic more formidable than ships made of rain

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. NorrellJonathan 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.

Continue reading

“Remember me!”

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 ExpressOrient 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.

Continue reading

John Steinbeck, The Long Valley

The stories in The Long Valley are sly. Their coloring may be Steinbeck through and through, but their tone is surprising. Sure, the men get down on their haunches and do some figgerin’ while the sun scars the black earth, but damnit! there’s humor in these stories! There’s suspense in these stories!

Steinback, Long ValleyThe Long Valley · John Steinbeck · 1936-‘38
Library of America, 1996 (The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings) · 205 pages, hardcover

Many of the stories in The Long Valley, namely “The White Quail” and “The Snake,” coax us to expect a certain ending, and yet, lurking on the last page or in the final paragraph, is a (usually very violent) surprise or a subtle turn of phrase that drops the floor of your stomach real quick.

Continue reading

Interlude: end of Q4 at the Masthead

The Masthead will be celebrating its first birthday tomorrow, January 15 – here’s the final breakdown of books read and reviewed in 2017:

Books reviewed: 34
Pages read: 12,487
Longest book: King’s It (1153 pages)
Shortest book: Shakespeare’s Othello (82 pages)
The full breakdown? Here’s a look:

books read by number of pages

Translated fiction: 13 (from 7 languages: Arabic, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish)
New-to-me authors: 21 (everyone excepting Capote, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, King, Mahfouz, Rushdie, Shakespeare and Vonnegut)
Oldest book: Shakespeare’s Othello (1603)
Newest book: Tóbín’s House of Names (2017; Auster’s 4321 was also published in 2017 but earlier in the year)

And as always, a quick recap of each book read and reviewed here over the past three months (find all of this year’s reviews linked in the review archive):

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
A sound opener to Larsson’s Millenium series: he’s piqued our interest in the non-cheapskate way: the main story of this first novel wraps up by the end; it’s his characters who demand us to pick up the second. Intricate plotting, strong characters and a good mystery (or two: Salandar’s her own mystery really).

Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse
This one’s a wild read! A little carnival veneer slicks up some good German philosophizing. Hesse had a good bit to say about defining your life, and he said it in an entertaining way.

The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Amateur writing and an insipid story about the loss of some trust fund money combine in this contemporary to make you roll your eyes. That said, this author could probably do some good work if she were to take a risk with her writing; this one’s too conventional to stand out.

 

2666, Roberto Bolaño
Vulgar in the most pristine way and a real maze of clever writing, this one’s a rough read and all the better for it: its loose plotting and open structure are both to its credit.

Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton
A modern-sounding novel from the blackout London of WWII, Hamilton writes split-personality perfectly and makes you adore his very messed-up George Harvey Bone.

The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway
True Hemingway style for how the story takes shape (i.e. between the lines).This one has a lot to say about love and about being your own person. But know this: it’s a weaker novel than his more major works.

The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck
There’s not even the suggestion of cheerfulness in this one: a novel beautifully written and describing through the deaths (yes, multiple) of one girl the havoc of 20th century Central Europe and the East-West divide.

What’s first in the new year? John Steinbeck’s short story collection, The Long Valley (expected publication date for review is January 19  *edit: January 21); Graham Greene’s Orient Express and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Cheers!

Q1 wrap-up
Q2 wrap-up
Q3 wrap-up
Browse the review archive