Currently reading: Grass and Vandermeer

Reading two very different books…

currently reading Grass Vandermeer

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…

Happy reading!

– EMH

Nikolai Gogol, keen-sighted imp

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.

Gogol, Collected TalesThe 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

Putney: love in the time of #MeToo

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.

zinovieff, putneyPutney · 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

Year in review: best books of 2018

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?

Continue reading

Sarah Perry, the Essex Serpent

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.

Sarah Perry, the Essex SerpentThe 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

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

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