A savage sentience: Roberto Bolaño

I came across this bit by Seth Riley over at The Millions, and boy…he gets it. I’d like to buy the guy a drink because who else is going to talk desert murders, prison violence and fetishized torment with me (and endure all the fevers and all the kicks and punches only to laud the cause of them afterward)? As Riley knows, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a book that splits you open and tears you up. I’m still turning the thing this way and that long after reviewing it late in 2017 and giving Bolaño top marks for ingenuity.

Since then I’ve added his Third Reich and The Insufferable Goucho to my collection. I guess I don’t hold a grudge for pain inflicted.

 

Addendum/Edited to add…from the comments to Riley’s piece:

Both books [2666 and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian] are kind of like moral tests, and if you keep reading through the dead babies hung on trees and sequences of rapes and murders, it’s almost like you’ve failed the test. I keep on failing. It’s gruesome, it’s horrific, but I can’t turn away.

…I think this John Fox guy gets it, too.

 

 

Interlude: end of Q1 (year 3!) at the Masthead!

April 15, 2019, marks the end of the Masthead’s first quarter to its third year celebrating the writer and his work through book reviews. Here’s a recap of the past three months:

Books reviewed: 5 (3 novels, 1 short story collection and 1 book of poetry)
Translated fiction: 2 (from 2 languages, Russian and German)
New-to-me authors: 5 (that’s every last one of ’em!)
Oldest book: Gogol’s collected fiction (1830-’42)
Newest book:  Zinovieff’s Putney (2018)
Longest book: Grass’ The Tin Drum and Gogol’s collected fiction (465 pages)
Shortest book: Daley-Ward’s Bone (160 pages)

As per usual, here’s a quick look at each book read and reviewed here since January 15:

Putney, Sofka Zinovieff
Though she took up the challenge of writing on a difficult topic – child sexual abuse and statutory rape – Zinovieff’s novel flatlines as forgettable and unemotional.

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol
Nikolai Gogol had a puckish devil-may-care attitude to the world around him, and he wrote with a keen observer’s eye to provincial customs and city life alike. The short fiction compiled here is a perfect blend of magic and reality – enjoy the ride.

Bone, Yrsa Daley-Ward
Still fresh to the literary scene, Daley-Ward’s first poetry collection is highly autobiographical but still universal in its feeling. Broken bones, mended.

AnnihilationJeff VanderMeer
Annihilation is eco literature without an axe to grind, and VanderMeer’s first novel to his Southern Reach trilogy shows the man’s awe of the natural world, his grasp of human psychology and his ability to write fluidly.

The Tin Drum, Günter Grass
A German Crime and Punishment and allegory on top of allegory, Grass’ major opus of wartime Poland is difficult and entirely worth it.

Browse the Review Archive
2018 mini reviews:
Quarter 1
Quarter 2
Quarter 3
Quarter 4
2017 mini reviews:
Quarter 1
Quarter 2
Quarter 3
Quarter 4

 

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

Novelists are some smart folks

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.

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

End credits: books read 2018

 

The Long Valley
John Steinbeck

Orient Express
Graham Greene

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke

Thank You for Smoking
Christopher Buckley

The Fishermen
Chigozie Obioma

The Little Friend
Donna Tartt

The Kreuzer Sonata
Leo Tolstoy

The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Leo Tolstoy

White Teeth
Zadie Smith

Kokoro
Natsume Soseki

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K. Dick

The Three Musketeers
Alexandre Dumas

1984
George Orwell

The Stand
Stephen King

This Side of Paradise
F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Makioka Sisters
Junichirō Tanizaki

Mrs. Rosie and the Priest
Boccaccio

Comemadre
Roque Larraquy

The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann

Red Sparrow
Jason Matthews

The Giver
Lois Lowry

The Three Theban Plays
Sophocles

The Adolescent
Fyodor Dostoevsky

Still Life with Woodpecker
Tom Robbins

The Essex Serpent
Sarah Perry

Happy New Year!

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

New books: December

new books december

When every purchase gives you a bounce-back coupon…!

Garth Risk Hallberg, City on Fire
Omar El Akkad, American War
Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves

Fridlund’s chilly Minnesota novel is likely going to be my next book. History of Wolves was a finalist for the 2017 Man Booker – and it’s Fridlund’s first novel. I can get behind a MN girl who writes good stuff 😉

I’ve been thinking of picking up the Hallberg for a verrry long time. Read a few pages here and there and know it gave the author a sizeable advance: a healthy $2 mil. The same guy who recommended American War to me (and who knows my reading tastes) seconded City on Fire as being more than worth my time. So…I bought it!