September, 2019: What I Read

A Time to Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

An eloquent traveler’s account of four monasteries: the Benedictine Abbeys of St. Wandrille and Solesmes, the Cistercian La Grande Trappe, and a long-abandoned rock monastery in former Cappadocia. Fermor was clearly not a believer in the faith to which these institutions are devoted, but his book is the most respectful account of monastic life and its environs that I have ever read. His prose has, itself, the beauty of stained glass.

As the monks dispersed after Vespers and, a few hours later, after Compline, I had a sensation of the termperature of life falling to zero, the blood running every second thinner and slower as if the heart might in the end imperceptibly stop beating. These men really lived as if each day were their last, at peace with the world, shriven, fortified by the sacraments, ready at any moment to cease upon the midnight with no pain. Death, when it came, would be the easiest of change-overs. The silence, the appearance, the complexion and the gait of ghosts they had already; the final step would be only a matter of detail.

Unholy Land, by Lavie Tidhar

A strange, intriguing, hard-to-summarize science fiction novel. It’s about Jewish mysticism, the mood and tropes of noir crime fiction, metafiction, and an alternate history version(s) of Zionism. It features the author’s recurring stand-in for himself (a pulp writer named Lior Tirosh), a Kabbalistic spy agency, an imaginary Jewish state in central Africa, and a war across timelines and universes. No one is writing science fiction quite like Tidhar.

There was on his face a pinched sort of expression, one that I had sometimes seen in my own reflection in the mirror. It is a sort of existential anguish, a tearing of the mind between two incompatible recollections. Imagine that you are one thing and, at the same time, something other entirely, both trying to coexist at once. that is the condition of being a Jew, I sometimes think – to always be one thing and another, to never quite fit. We are the grains of sand that irritate the oyster shell of the world.

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, by Alice Munro

Since I did much of this month’s reading on a balcony high above downtown Toronto, it seemed a good occasion to do what I have been meaning to do for a long time and try to appreciate Canada’s Nobel laureate, Alice Munro. On every previous attempt I have bounced off her stories. Undoubtedly I was set up for this failure by people who have told me Munro is boring, or the epitome of a certain kind of tedious, bougie, stylized realism. But something has changed (in me) (for the better). I read this book in a state of sustained and unremitting shock at how good it was. I was entranced by the detail and implication packed into virtually every sentence. I was reminded of the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald. If you know me, you know that’s the highest praise I can give.

Before she married [Brian], Pauline had a friend named Gracie, a rather grumpy-looking girl, subversive about men. Brian had thought her a girl whose spirits needed a boost, and so he made even more than the usual effort. And Gracie said to Pauline, “How can you stand the nonstop show?” “That’s not the real Brian,” Pauline had said. “He’s different when we’re alone.” But looking back, she wondered how true that had ever been. Had she said it simply to defend her choice, as you did when you made up your mind to get married?

In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Despite extravagantly early success as a writer in English, Jhumpa Lahiri decided to abandon it for Italian. First she began to read only in Italian; then, to write only in Italian. This book is the first she wrote originally in Italian, and it is a memoir of her love affair with Italian. If it doesn’t make you fly to the arms of your own adulterous other language, you’ve read a different book than I did.

A week after arriving [in Rome] . . . I open my diary to describe our misadeventures. That Saturday, I do something strange, unexpected. I write my diary in Italian. I do it almost automatically, spontaneously. I do it because when I take the pen in my hand, I no longer hear English in my brain. I begin to relate, in the most exacting way, everything that is testing me. I write in a terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes. Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone. I grope my way, like a child, like a semiliterate. I am ashamed of writing like this. I don’t understand this mysterious impulse, which emerges out of nowhere. I can’t stop.

Expensive People, by Joyce Carol Oates

I wrote elsewhere about this novel in which a young man recounts how and why he murdered one of his parents.

The Dream-child’s Progress and Other Essays, by David Bentley Hart

Sesquipedalian squibs about books, music, and history, and winkingly leftish takes on right-wing tropes, wrapped up like a scallop in the bacon of theological assertiveness (which is how, I imagine, so many of these opinions were somehow smuggled onto the decidedly not-left-leaning website of the magazine First Things). I can only take so much of Hart’s orotund and straining style at any one time; but in small, concentrated doses, he is diverting. Often he puts me on the scent of new things to read and think about.

We were both also of the conviction that, no matter what or for whom one is writing, one should always use the words that most precisely mean what one wants to say, no matter how recondite they might be. One should certainly never use a word simply because it is obscure, but one should never hesitate to use a word on account of its obscurity either.

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

I wrote elsewhere about this novel in which a writer starves on the streets of Kristiania.

Ministry of Moral Panic, by Amanda Lee Koe

Much-recommended short story collection by a Singaporean writer, many of the stories in which are about Singapore. Also mostly about a woman’s victimization by man, and the painful ways she tries to secure freedom and self-containment in the wake of betrayal. A lot of abjection and misery in these stories. One of them did, however, instill in me the desire to drink a Singapore Sling in the Raffles Hotel Bar. I don’t think any of them will stick with me, but they were consistently interesting.

I threw my bed away. Depression is easy when you have a bed. I’m well now. The floor makes for good sleep.

Art & War: Poetry, Pulp, and Politics in Israeli Fiction, by Lavie Tidhar and Shimon Adaf

A long mutual interview between Lavie Tidhar (see Unholy Land above) and Shimon Adaf. Both are Israeli writers of speculative fiction, uneasily straddling the line between pulp fiction and literary fiction, and quite self-consciously grappling with the political duties of writers who belong to an apartheid state and who are at the same time trying to be good stewards of the cultural deposit of Judaism, Jewish history, and Israeli literature. Adaf writes in Hebrew; Tidhar, in English. (They both write in English in this book.) It has a lot of shop-talk about writing and publishing – and for that reason I adored it. It certainly isn’t for everyone. At the end, each wrote a short story with the other as a character.

To me, this new reality – this enforced reality – is endlessly fascinating. I can’t help but see reality as a construct, as a fiction. A story. And so I worry at it, I try to interrogate it in the only way I know how, which is by telling stories of my own. Maybe that’s why all my stories are meta-stories – they know they are artifice, artefacts, that a story cannot be real.

The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark

A bunch of young professional women live together in a single-sex boarding house, shortly after the war. One of them works for a publisher and therefore brings home seedy characters from the world of books. (“‘The world of books is essentially disinterested,’ Jane said. She always referred to the publishing business as ‘the world of books’.”) Attachments ensue, then detachments. Muriel Spark hops from head to head as promiscuously as her inteloper hops from bed to bed, and she keeps all the plates of her various running gags spinning at once, like a sharper, meaner P.G. Wodehouse (if he could have managed to stuff actual three-dimensional women into his stories). Every time I read a novel by Muriel Spark I must tear myself away from the impulse immediately to gorge upon everything by Muriel Spark. Her books are so much sharp-edged fun they deserve to be spaced out.

Black Wings Has My Angel, by Elliott Chaze

A sensitive tough guy knocks off an armored truck with a sex-symbol on his arm; then they live the high life until fate catches up with them. Paper-thin crime thriller with vivid, stylish prose. I can only assume the writing is the reason it was republished by NYRB Classics, because that’s all it has going for it.

The rain beat against the windows and against the tin roof of the hotel. It came down in hissing roars, then in whispers, then in loud shishes like sandpaper rubbed against wood. She drank the second glassful, climbed off the bed and began undressing, and then we were together, the cheap naked bulb still blazing down on the bed.

The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard

The first book in a fantasy trilogy which takes place in an alternate history of post-war Paris, in which the war was actually a war between the great houses run by fallen angels. It stages a fascinating thought experiment, literalizing and opposing the mythology of Bodard’s two cultures – French and Vietnamese – in a fascinatingly damp and decaying atmosphere with lots of delicious speculative world-building. Deep down, it’s about colonialism, and how it sucks for both colonized and colonizer. There’s a dragon kingdom beneath the Seine. Notre Dame cathedral is the abandoned throne-room of Morningstar. The streets of Paris are domed by ashy skies, and gangs roam the gloomy streets looking for newly fallen angels to dismember. Like most of Bodard’s work, this novel combines the garish delights of genre with a rigorous orientation to mundane and inner life – this is the combination that gives her astonishing, pulpy settings their poetic sheen, the feeling that you are looking into the kitchens and bedrooms of a glittering strange world where most writers would focus on the battles and boardrooms.

It is almost pleasant, at first, to be Falling.

Nirvana Express: Journal of a Very Brief Monkhood, by S.P. Somtow

S.P. Somtow is a fascinating Thai polymath: novelist, composer, conductor, celebrity. His novel, Jasmine Nights, is one of my favorite novels ever. Nirvana Express is a memoir about how he he suddenly decided in middle-age to pursue one of those evanescent stints as a monk common to Theravada Buddhist men. Given how superficial – by his own admittance – Somtow’s engagement with Buddhism is, I learned a surprisingly large amount.

The great religions of the West are systems to reverse the flow of Entropy. They teach whether by faith, by good deeds, or by devotion, one may attain to a state in which Entropy is permanently held at bay – and that state, called by some Paradise (which is an ancient Hebrew word for “orchard”) is the state of existence most worthy of attainment. By contrast, Buddhism, like modern science, accepts the reality of the Third Law of Thermodynamics. It is not a system designed to reverse the flow of Entropy at all. Rather, it is a system for accepting, coming to terms with, and finally embracing Entropy.

Six Records of a Floating Life, by Shen Fu

The memoir of an administrator from the 18th century Qing dynasty China who loved his wife, was bad at his job, and enjoyed looking at paintings, reading poetry, and watching ants walk through the grass. Ravishingly beautiful. The most touching account of married life I have ever read. The kind of book that makes you want to just chuck everything you’re doing overboard and go train bonsai trees with your beloved.

Whenever we would meet one another in a darkened room or a narrow hallway of the house, we would hold hands and ask, “Where are you going?” We felt furtive, as if we were afraid others would see us. In fact, at first [despite being married] we even avoided being seen walking or sitting together, though after a while we thought nothing of it. If Yun were sitting and talking with someone and saw me come in, she would stand up and move over to me and I would sit down beside her. Neither of us thought about this and it seemed quite natural; and though at first we felt embarrassed about it, we gradually grew accustomed to doing it. The strangest thing to me then was how old couples seemed to treat one another like enemies. I did not understand why. Yet people said, “Otherwise, how could they grow old together?” Could this be true? I wondered.

Heavy: An American Memoir, by Kiese Laymon

The kind of book I tend to avoid – the kind that has “buzz” – unless I am actually required to read it because someone is paying me to review it. But I had it from readers I trust that this time the excitement was legitimate. It is a memoir addressed to the author’s mother, who gave him all his gifts and complexes, appetites and ambitions. Reading it feels like eaves-dropping on a very private, painful conversation. It is a richly complex examination of disordered eating, co-dependency, ambition, masculinity, American racism, the education of a writer, and how the ones who protect us hurt us too…

You made me read more books and write more words in response to those books than any of my friends’ parents, but nothing I’d ever read prepared me to write or talk about memory of sex, sound, space, violence, and fear.

And that’s what I read this month. I may make this a regular(ish) thing, in imitation of Dorian Stuber.

New Essay: “The Struggle to Feel”

I’ve a long piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It’s about Benjamin Moser’s Susan Sontag: Her Life and Work. My piece has more of the review and less of the essay than I like in my essay-reviews, but my plan to explore Sontag’s themes while discussing a new account of her life was hijacked by certain features of the biography to which I felt compelled to respond.


Cliches of the Critics

– apparent meaning: much praised.
– lazy function: to excuse the reviewer from finding any independent reasons why this author should be more important to you than an equivalent weight of white raisins.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer read a bunch of other reviews of the book first, to get some ideas for their own review, and discovered most of the others were positive; alternatively, the reviewer considers this author too popular to poke with a critical stick.

Characters Come To Life
– apparent meaning: you thought this book was fiction, but it’s actually a necromantic spell.
– lazy function: to imply that a book’s characters are more than under-written stereotypes, but without showing or explaining why this is the case.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer fell asleep while reading the book and dreamed they were being chased by one or more of the characters. And, a fortiori: this reviewer confuses their emotional reaction to a story with its more objective qualities.

– apparent meaning: the characters / books / sentences of the author under review, like your mamma’s gingerbread men, have identical formal dimensions.
– lazy function: to imply that the book under review adhered to genre stereotypes or slavishly imitated another story, but without just showing that by examples.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer reads far too much of this genre / the reviewer has been required to read far too much of this author, and resents it.

– apparent meaning: this book belongs to the tradition inaugurated by Homer’s Iliad.
– lazy function: to indicate that the book is very long.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer did not finish reading this book.

– apparent meaning: a writer of copious, unoriginal, uninspiring, but adequate words.
– lazy function: to indicate dissatisfaction with an author’s approach to the book under review, without going to the trouble of establishing where the reviewer can even imagine having done better.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer respects the author’s character but considers them deficient in intellect, taste, or time; also, use of this word often connotes a wary respect based on self-recognition.

– apparent meaning: a book that sticks with you in a rather distressing way, much like a ghost, even after its physical presence has gone away.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer (and you too, dear reader) is such a sensitive individual that strong aesthetic experiences painfully color their experience of everyday life.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer was overcome by a horrifying personal memory as they read, possibly as a result of the old guacamole they were eating to give them strength to finish, and they have actually already forgotten the book’s plot (but the after-effects of the guacamole continue, and they’re pretty sure they’re going to have nightmares tonight).

– apparent meaning: Impossible to imitate.
– lazy function: to indicate stylistic distinctiveness, deployed to avoid the hard work of showing and accurately describing what is distinctive about the style in question.
– unintended revelation: The writer under review has such recognizable patterns and mannerisms that they are precisely imitable. They are so imitable, in fact, that you would actually beclown yourself by imitating them. So the word reveals the opposite of what it means, confusing description and prescription.

– apparent meaning: short.
– lazy function: to imply the reviewer appreciates (and perhaps aspires to) a certain elegant asceticism.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was so grateful for how short the book was, he chose to overlook how much it failed to persuade / convince / entertain and instead praised it for its abortive qualities.

– apparent meaning: having the precision of an engraving or inscription on a monument.
– lazy function: impressive-sounding word for prose the reviewer more or less liked without being able to put a finger on why: a word the reader is likely to nod knowingly about without actually understanding.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is a complete philistine when it comes to the plastic arts.

– apparent meaning: to indicate that a book has nice paper, lots of pictures, a well-made binding, and good cover art.
– lazy function: to tactfully intimate this book is expensive as fuck.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer would never have got hold of this book but for the fact that review copies are free; moreover, he will soon make a killing by auctioning it off on Amazon; moreover, he is talking about what it looks like to avoid the fact that the book is uninteresting and pointless in every other way.

– apparent meaning: the author or book under review has great authority.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer has the erudition to distinguish truly original or comprehensively evenhanded scholarship on the book’s topic from all the other shit that’s written about it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was impressed by the sheer length of the book, the fact that it was written by somebody famous for being smart, or because he has apparently never read anything else on the subject.

– apparent meaning: extremely careful and detailed.
– lazy function: to weakly praise a thing the reviewer found incredibly boring, but nonetheless felt they ought to like, probably.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer only finished this book because they would have felt guilty otherwise, and they wish to delude themselves into believing that they actually enjoyed it, purely as a psychological defense against the recognition of the true abyss of the reading to $ ratio of their ill-advised career.

– apparent meaning: the author under review makes subtle distinctions.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is not an ideological hack or fundamentalist of some stripe, but a sophisticated and cosmopolitan thinker, who recognizes the manifold considerations relevant to a contested issue.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer actually agrees with the author’s position on this issue, and suspects that people who don’t agree should be made to read it.

Pitch perfect
– apparent meaning: the author under review never uses the wrong word, and always conveys a scene in words appropriate to its significance or an argument in words appropriate to its gravity.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a genuine afficionado of prose style, whose discrimination rivals that of Nabokov.
– unintended revelation: (1) the reviewer agrees with the author’s position, (2) the reviewer probably knows the author or wants to be like them, (3) the reviewer sort of suspects their own prose sounds rather like this author’s.

– apparent meaning: profoundly touching.
– lazy function: to express, tactfully, that a story was melodramatic (but the reviewer can’t say so or they’d be either traducing a famous name or trampling somebody’s personal story).
– unintended revelation: the reviewer, dead inside from so much reading, is actually unable to produce a tear unless they use a juicer on an onion and then pour the liquid into their eye with a funnel.

Reads like a novel
– apparent meaning: this book, while not a novel, is as much fun to read as a novel.
– lazy function: to imply that this book is really fun even though its topic sounds boring enough to kill a cow.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is privately extremely interested in the topic of this book.

Resonant [also as a verb: “this book resonates”]
– apparent meaning: this book is about much more than at first appears.
– lazy function: to avoid the actual work of drawing connections between the book’s content and the things it reminded the reviewer of.
– unintended revelation: as the reviewer read this book, they were thinking about something else.

– apparent meaning: very influential, much the way semen is influential in the conception of new humans.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer’s godlike view of the landscape of books allows him to make authoritative proclamations about the subterranean lava flows of literary influence.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer wishes more people would write books like this one, and is also unaware that, most likely, the thing he finds original and influential in the book had been done to death actual centuries before it was written; also, the reviewer is likely male.

“X by Y is, pardon the expression / as it were, [one of the other words in this glossary]”
– apparent meaning: Because I am aware that I am lazy, I am not, in fact, lazy.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is generally speaking above reviewer cliches, but in this case has found a true instance of the original phenomenon for which the cliche was first invented and is therefore justified in resorting to it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is not only lazy, but also stupid enough to think that by parading their laziness they will convince you they are not lazy.

– apparent meaning: that this book will make you more serious about life, or about some particular issue.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a serious person who gravely applauds the earnestness of others.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer thinks you, the reader, are probably too frivolous about this issue; also, the reviewer was likely drinking as he wrote this review.