Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Fools Crow by James Welch


James Welch’s novel Fools Crow (first published 1986) is one of the great works of American fiction. It's certainly the best novel I’ve ever read about American Westward Expansion. Set in Montana Territory in 1869-70, it deals with the struggle of the Pikuni branch of the Blackfeet tribe against the complex divisions within the tribe as well as against the encroachment of white settlers and the U.S. Army.

The narrative collapses the conventional western distinction between realism and the magical, as well as balancing on the often terrifying line between hopelessness and hope. The subtlety and complexity of the characters brings to the forefront the dynamic between brutality and care for others that is one of the main tensions of the story. And the prose is remarkably and uniquely beautiful and unlike anything else I’ve come across in the English language.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Simone: A Novel, by Eduardo Lalo


Some worthwhile, relatively recent fiction (translation 2015) out of Puerto Rico. The narrator maybe talks a little too much early on, but once the character dynamics kick in, the narrative has some surprising turns in its development and some fascinating cultural dynamics built around the presence of the Chinese in Puerto Rico.

The second half of the book is riveting and intertwines literary politics, cultural politics, and globalist and economic politics into some wild and emotionally crushing moments. The book feels like it has echoes of Bolaňo and the cultural politics of many other Central and South American novels of earlier generations, but the social environment, and the dynamics of its younger age group characters, make it feel fresh. All of it, especially the literary politics, shows a very new Puerto Rico.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

My teen years book list

These are books that I recall reading and enjoying in my teen years. I’m sure I read many others that I don’t remember, including books I didn’t like. In fact I took a high school Advanced Placement English class my senior year and don’t remember the book list from that class at all, and that’s true even if some books from that class are on this list (who knows? not me). These are the authors and books that stuck with me, proved by the fact that I still recall them.

Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Tales and Poems (from 8 on)

Edward Lear, The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear (from 8 on)

Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, ed. Cerf, Wagner, and Wise (Penguin Books anthology)  (from 11 on)

Arthur Conan Doyle, nearly all of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels (from 11 on)

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (read the trilogy every summer from 13-15. Probably read The Hobbit at age 11 or 12)

Agatha Christie, nearly all (read between the ages of 13 and 18; picked up again in my 40s)

William Faulkner, most (from 13-forever; first read Sanctuary in 8th grade on my own because it was considered a “dangerous book” and read all the others over some years after)

Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (14; ninth grade English)

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, and other stories (14? Ninth grade English maybe? Not sure)

Frederick Douglass, The Autobiography of  Frederick Douglass (14; ninth grade English)

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (14? 15? Not sure)

William Golding, The Lord of the Flies (14? 15?)

Stephen R. Donaldson, Lord Foul’s Bane (15). I read the second and third books in this series and didn’t like them.

A.A. Milne, The Red House Mystery (15? 16?)

Nikolai Gogol, selected stories (15? 16?)

C.S. Lewis, The Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, That Hideous Strength, Perelandra (15-17)

John Barth, The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, The Sot-Weed Factor (15-17 and ongoing. The summer I was 16, The Sot Weed Factor replaced The Lord of the Rings as my summer epic)

Flannery O’Connor, all (from 15 on)

John Updike Rabbit, Run, The Centaur (16)

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, the sonnets (16; some in 11th grade English)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, The Double, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov (16-18)

Frank Herbert, Dune (16; tried the second book and didn’t like it)

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (16; it was legendary in my family how much I hated this book on my first read because of the Linton family; by my college years, it had become one of my favorite novels.)

Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man (16)

Thomas Hardy, Return of the Native, Jude the Obscure (16-17)

Ngaio Marsh, many titles (16-18)

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath (16-17)

James Wright, Native Son (17)

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man, Finnegan’s Wake (17)

Monday, May 6, 2024

Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio


The stories of Pu Songling (1640-1715) are some of the most gorgeous fantastic tales I’ve ever read. They’re full of surprise and grotesquerie and startlingly vivid textures. While they express the ideology of their time, they also manage to be subversive in many ways. The precision of their style is a great vehicle for the somehow culturally logical absurdities of the narratives. Unforgettable. I could read these stories over and over.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

The Blizzard by Vladamir Sorokin


In the novel The Blizzard (2010, English translation 2015) by Vladamir Sorokin, events take place in dangerous and potentially deadly cold and snow and ice. The book features a lot of human brutality, exploitation and indifference to other humans and displays the essential grimness and frequent desperation of human behavior. It has satiric, comic elements that are sometimes nearly slapstick and often involve equipment not working in the dangerous weather. The question is whether the journey is going anywhere or will end up being a hopeless loop of absurdity that may lead to death. There is probably a message about the hopelessness of living in a totalitarian society with a cold climate for which alternatives seem mostly fantasy.

I’ve long been a fan of Russian literature, and while I liked this book I didn’t love it because the features above are so much like so much other recent Russian fiction that I find in English translation. It left me wondering what might be some recent Russian novels that are not about coldness, brutality, indifference, and political hopelessness. But I suppose Russian fiction about warm weather is probably hard to come by.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Why I Write The Kinds of Book Reviews I Write or, What Happened To Book Reviews Of Contemporary Literature?

In my writing lifetime, I’ve published probably maybe 100, maybe 200 reviews of contemporary literature of various lengths and in different contexts. And of those reviews, maybe at most ten of them have been more negative than positive, maybe because I mostly prefer to write about books I mostly like.

As might be expected, those ten more negative reviews received much more attention than any of the others and made people angry, usually not the writer, but sometimes, and more often friends of the writer or professional editors. In at least one case I can think of, I seem to have inadvertently made a permanent enemy of one editor who rejected me for all further work for the journal, not that I cared that much really.

It was around the time that I learned how much that one editor hated me (a person I’ve never met) that I stopped trying to place reviews in publications and turned to reviewing books only on my blog or sometimes in publications at the request of others. But I’ve never again queried anyone about accepting a book review. Maybe I was tired of it, didn’t feel a need to do it anymore. I still do publish quite a few reviews or mentions of other books though, but I don’t ask for publication permission anymore. That part just doesn’t seem worth it.

But the thing I also realized was that the world of professional book reviewing of contemporary literature didn’t have much use for even minimal levels of honesty. Book reviews are most of the time no more than promotions for a book, except in the hands of a very small number of reviewers who keep their role as professional haters, a position I didn’t want either. I’m not asserting the value of “objectivity” in reviewing because I know there’s no such thing. But there’s just not much opportunity for independence of thought.

I say all this because sometimes, these days, people will ask what happened to book reviews of contemporary literature? Reviews still exist, obviously, but there aren’t nearly as many as some writers might like. But along with the problem of finding an audience for reading reviews, the literary field is too closed in on itself, too small and threatened in its very existence, to have more than a few options for thoughtful, honest, independent reviews. Most reviews are reviews of books written by people who know the writer, or know friends of the writer, or are known as enemies of the writer.

So what, really, is in it for the book reviewer of the work of literature by a living author? It doesn’t improve your own position as a writer in the world, most of the time, to talk about somebody else’s book. It gets you a few murmurs of thanks if you say something positive and some significant hostility if you don’t. Maybe if you do something for somebody, they’ll do something for you; that’s about the best aspect of it.

Oh well. I’m still going to write about books when I feel like it, which is sometimes. But if you’re looking for one reason (among several) why book reviewing in contemporary literature has faded, look no further than the desires for success with which the field is saturated, and which no one in the field stands in any clear space outside.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Honey Mine (Collected Stories) by Camille Roy


There’s a lot of brilliant writing in this book. Camille Roy has a remarkable style: crisp, vivid, energetic. Although the subtitle of Honey Mine is Collected Stories, this is a profoundly hybrid collection. Short stories, memoir, poetry, essays, all of these ways of writing weave in and out through individual pieces and the text as a whole so that genre categories never remain stable.

One of the key themes of this book is that underground and alternative communities, whether based in sexual identity or identities and politics of other kinds, can form genuine and meaningful alternative values. And if Roy wants readers to understand that those communities and values sometimes thrive by being opaque to the rest of the world, everything in Honey Mine communicates powerfully, even when it chooses what not to speak of.