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…
With Gogol, strangeness is inevitable and the one constant is a vertigo that abruptly skews reality before allowing it to settle again – only it’s shifted an inch from where we thought we’d find it.
The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol · Nikolai Gogol · 1830-‘42
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 465 pages, paperback
To read a Gogolian story is to read a story of layered perspective and one that fuses dreams with reality, metamorphosing into a singularly bewitched universe that exists side by side with our own. Continue reading
I ask because your rivers darkle (and I know there’s no other word for it), and your phantoms and men are one and the same.
…I love it.
Sofka Zinovieff’s most recent novel was meant to be a cross-section of a child’s first love, flayed and pinned back by the discerning scalpel of adulthood to show such a love for what it really is. But while Putney lands at the intersection of love and abuse, it then sits there idly, doing absolutely nothing.
Putney · Sofka Zinovieff
Harper, 2018 · 384 pages, hardcover
The seventies were a decade of anything goes. Daphne, the girl at the forefront of Zinovieff’s novel, is the product of a Greek-English household too busy with the art world, with the national resistance in Greece and with a lover each for mama and papa to parent her in any meaningful way.
Unlike the Daphne of myth, who appealed to her father for protection against Apollo’s lust, this Daphne enjoys it willingly enough when she finds herself recipient of Ralph’s affections. This willingness is at the center of Putney as Zinovieff tries to define juvenile love alongside an adult’s reckless touch when consent cannot be real. Continue reading
You know how people say that you don’t really understand complex somethings until you can parse those somethings down into things any dummy can grasp? That’s how I feel about a novelist who can put big ideas into a good story. Philosophy is one thing, but philosophy placed in a physical world, with no dialectics and no arguments but just so – and then given life through characters – is quite another.
By the numbers, here’s a recap of the Masthead’s 2018 reading year and, with one last quarter to close out before its second birthday on the 15th, a quick peek into each book read and reviewed over the past three months.
Cheers! Continue reading
I’m doing this a little differently than last year. My 2018 reading year was one of five standouts, a handful of good reads and a string of books that, for of the most part, lolled about, neither good nor bad but certainly indifferent to taking a shot at greatness.
I had to do something to add a little year-end spice to the list because the same mentions for everything just isn’t all that fun, is it? I scrapped the 5-4-3-2-1 format of 2017 as well as my separate review of authors. Neither was going to work for the 2018 year-end recap.
Apart from the two disappointments of the year (obv), take each category below as a recommendation. Teaser? 2018 gave me a new all-time favorite novel.
So here goes: what was tops in 2018?
The Long Valley
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Thank You for Smoking
The Little Friend
The Kreuzer Sonata
The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K. Dick
The Three Musketeers
This Side of Paradise
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Makioka Sisters
Mrs. Rosie and the Priest
The Magic Mountain
The Three Theban Plays
Still Life with Woodpecker
The Essex Serpent
Happy New Year!
Sarah Perry’s Essex Serpent is a bizarre tale. It’s bizarre not because of its serpentine mystery, but because it’s a good novel when everything about it would say otherwise.
The Essex Serpent · Sarah Perry
Custom House, 2016 · 417 pages, hardcover
You couldn’t say that The Essex Serpent is historical fiction or mystery or thriller, nor does it have a Victorian pastiche or the effervescent pall of a fantasy about it. Or it does, but not quite. It’s a curious novel but one clearly meant for the present day, the present year, a sort of amalgamation of past place and present principle. It’s odd. Continue reading
Still Life with Woodpecker is a most postmodern postmodern fairytale.
Still Life with Woodpecker · Tom Robbins · 1980
No Exit Press, 2001 · 277 pages, paperback
For a man who can end a sentence with dildos and wax poetic about a good sucking off, it’s going to be a hard guess as to how he managed to end his story with individualism and true love. Tom Robbins takes an obvious pleasure in the process, delighting in a vocabulary that lends itself well to diarrhea of the mouth.
He’s also, incidentally, a fantastic storyteller. Continue reading