Author: Robert Minto

Book Log: July 2020

I have been reading this summer, though not blogging about it. Instead I spent my time scurrying around Pittsburgh in 90+ degree weather, from temporary living place to temporary living place, dodging Coronavirus and doomscrolling the news. But I have a new, more permanent home now, and it’s time to resume a lot of things, including blogging. I’ll provide a well-annotated account of August’s reading in September. For now, just to shake off the rust, here’s a mere un-annotated list of what I read in July.

It was a pleasant, hodgepodge mixture of essay collections, translated fiction from Archipelago books, biographies of Victorian men of letters, and the usual smattering of science fiction.

  • Thick: And Other Essays, by Tressie McMillan Cottom
  • A General Theory of Oblivion, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
  • We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Abolish Silicon Valley, by Wendy Liu
  • Rosewater, by Tade Thompson
  • The Little Virtues, by Natalia Ginzburg
  • Thinking without a Banister, by Hannah Arendt
  • A Change of Time, by Ida Jessen
  • The Amateur, by Wendy Lesser
  • Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo
  • Melancholia, by Dowman Sayman
  • Bernard Shaw, by Michael Holroyd
  • From the Wreck, by Jane Rawson
  • Thomas Hardy, by Claire Tomalin
  • Infinite Detail, by Tim Maughan

Book Log: March 2020

Killing the Black Dog, by Les Murray

An essay-length memoir of depression, followed by a set of poems written at the nadir of that depression. The borderline “incel”-like agonies expressed in Murray’s striking and controlled lines are a study in the artistic elevation of ugly feelings. I kept thinking as I read this book that to create the epitome (in art) of anything, even hopelessness, despair, and misanthropy, is somehow an end or a good in itself. I doubt it felt that way to Murray at the time, however.

Bukowski in a Sundress, by Kim Addonizio

A collection of personal essays about how hard it is to write poetry, how much agonized waiting you have to do, how minor the rewards are, and how much sex and alcohol you have to go through to bide the meantime. Perversely inspirational.

The Making of Zombie Wars, by Aleksandar Hemon

A novel about a feckless wannabe screenwriter who blows up his life by sleeping with a student in the ESL class he teaches and pissing off her homicidal husband, all while attempting to write a screenplay about a zombie apocalypse. The pleasure of the novel is to watch the overdone literary subject of sexual unfaithfulness and its consequences transmogrified in the protagonist’s imagination into scenes and story ideas for his screenplays. It’s also very funny.

Writing Was Everything, by Alfred Kazin

A short memoir about Kazin’s early career as a critic. Once I got over the green haze of envy that passed like a migraine across my eyes at the fact that Kazin literally supported himself for a while just by writing book reviews for The New Republic (the return on my own book reviews for the same venue couldn’t support a guinea pig living in Montana), I enjoyed the word portraits of his contemporaries.

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

A novel set on a sunless, geothermal planet wandering outside the galaxy so that the Milky Way itself (“the starry swirl”) is the only light in the sky, a planet where the inbred great-great-great-grand-children of two stranded astronauts have begun to populate the world and to turn the history of their origins into the foundations of a new religion. Absolutely transporting, a kind of three-way love-child of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia novels and Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker. It’s some of the best science fiction I’ve read in a long time, offering sharp narrative commentary on the social uses of story while, itself, utterly seizing the reader’s narrative imagination to create an alien world that feels real.

Poems the Size of Photographs, by Les Murray

Short poems about various things. The curmudgeonry on display here — having more of political reaction and less of personal depression behind it than the poems in Killing the Black Dog — annoyed and put me off.

A Carnival of Losses: Essays Nearing Ninety, by Donald Hall

Hall’s second set of essays about being really old. (The first was Essays After Eighty.) Composed of very short chapters, some of which even resemble flash fiction or flash essays, it is a work of prose approaching the condition of poetry. It includes a gutting memoir of his life with and devotion to his wife, the even better poet Jane Kenyon, who died long before he did, of cancer, despite being two decades younger than him. It also includes fascinating and frequently amusing recollections of Hall’s interactions with famous poets.

Mother of Eden, by Chris Beckett

A sequel to Dark Eden, set 200 years later. The events in the first book are attaining the status of political founding myths, just as the events prior to the first book have attained the status of religious myths. It’s a more focused narrative than Dark Eden, because it deals primarily with the fate of one charismatic and ill-starred character, who attempts to lead a revolution against the cruel and patriarchal feudalism that is beginning to set the stranded human population of the planet against itself.

Daughter of Eden, by Chris Beckett

The final book in the Dark Eden trilogy, which takes place just a few years after the events of Mother of Eden. It is probably the best book of the bunch. The carefully constructed, vivid, and insular world of the first two books is burst open by the return of astronauts from earth, centuries after their predecessors were stranded, to discover the weird society that has almost accidentally formed in their absence. But then the opening of the world is turned on its head and we realize that the insularity of Eden was not an artifact of its strange origin and terrible genetic and environmental constraints, but a portrait of the human condition itself, inescapable and tragic.

The Dark Net, by Benjamin Percy

Demons in Portland attempt to open the gates of hell with a computer virus, opposed only by a scatter-brained journalist, her blind niece, a preacher turned demon-hunter, and a kind of angelic drug dealer. It’s a work of pretty typical urban dark fantasy with stabs toward cyberpunk, tricked out in very energetic prose by a writer who made his name in literary fiction. Nothing profound here, but it’s well made for what it is.

Somebody with a Little Hammer, by Mary Gaitskill

A collection of essays, reviews, and introductions. It’s nuanced: and I don’t mean that in the way the word “nuanced” is abused so much today, where it refers to the kind of opinion writing that acknowledges diammetrical points of view on a contentious topic and refuses to choose between or resolve or even complicate them, instead just oscillating between them before giving up in a parody of negative capability. (Without naming names, several much-praised recent essay collections are “nuanced” in this fake, frustrating, cowardly way.) Instead, I mean it’s nuanced in the sense that Gaitskill walks around her topics to look at them from many angles, argues with herself, expresses uncertainty or a succession of differing convictions, and then grapples with this complexity to assert clear theses without erasing the hard and difficult work by which they were formulated. Not only are these essays beautifully written, in a supple and image-rich prose, but they are beautifully thought, a model of tough-minded, thick-skinned, honest essaying.

Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi

This novella traces the relationship of two siblings with strange powers from a point in the recent past to a possible future, in breathless, immersive prose, while questioning the counsels of meekness usually delivered to America’s oppressed. Kev was born during the Rodney King riots, and his life is a tale of dashed opportunities and police predation and eventual incarceration. Kev’s sister, Ella, can do Things. Weird, magical, super-hero-like things. In her youth she has to be protected from others, because a scary black girl in America is at deep and existential risk; as she ages, the world has to be protected from her, from her almost boundless power and justified rage.

Guns of the Dawn, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

A flintlock fantasy novel about a lady of leisure who gets drafted into a desperate war between her country and its nearest neighbor. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t as intellectually meaty as Tchaikovsky’s science fiction or as original in setting and speculation as his insect-based epic fantasy series.

Luna: Moon Rising, by Iain McDonald

The last volume in the extraordinary hard science fiction epic, the Luna trilogy. To my mind, this trilogy has raised the bar for a certain kind of widescreen hard-SF. The future imagined here, set on a colonized and bloodthirsty moon, is both incredibly detailed in the sciencey way you expect from hard-SF, but it’s also culturally plausible in its profusion of extrapolations from the present-day diversity of human cultures. McDonald’s moon is not from the whitewashed, Americanized future of “golden age” SF: it’s peopled with lunar Brazilians and Chinese and Russians and Ghanains and Australians, living together in a weird and hodgepodge ultra-libertarian society. The novels hold together a huge number of storylines and characters, each of which feels somehow fully explored and integrated in a flawlessly pacey narrative that takes the time in the midst of its high-octane political and military and high-society and legal thrillride to include gorgeous speculative nature writing and thought-provoking political thought experiments and tons of (to me) genuinely original speculative ideas. There also dozens of winks and quiet commentaries on the history of moon stories in science fiction, a whole other dimension to a masterpiece. This trilogy hasn’t gotten a tithe of the appreciation or attention it deserves. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s a television series before long, and then everybody will have heard of it and have opinions about it.

Book Log: February 2020

On Writing, Editing, and Publishing, by Jacques Barzun

A small collection of letters, essays, scholarly notes, and even a satiric squib about — surprise — writing, editing, and publishing. I found it worth reading in every part and superlative in two parts: it contains my now favorite exhortations about writerly discipline and the best essay I’ve read about Abraham Lincoln as a writer.

Leaving Tabasco, by Carmen Boullosa

A novel in which the grown-up and long-exiled Delmira Ulloa looks back on her childhood in the small Mexican town of Augustini, where portents and miracles and plagues abounded, and where, in retrospect, Delmira can see that her world was shot through with the political and sexual intrigues that conspired in the end to send her fleeing to another continent. The book does what I like best in a long narrative: fructifies inexhaustibly with surprising incidents while sharply describing a clear and inevitable arc.

Before, by Carmen Boullosa

A novella in which the childhood of a girl now dead is narrated by either her ghost or the woman she became. (It seemed to me that the narrator is the latter and that the ghost conceit is a metaphor for leaving childhood, but I’ve read critics who disagree, and what do I know? Nothing.) The life (or childhood) of this person is characterized above all by a sense of persecution by shadowy presences and otherwise ordinary objects. You could call it the memoir of a paranoiac. It is an engrossing frightshow of recollection — the lucid opposite of nostalgia.

The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

A novel set in France during the Bourbon Restoration (early 19th century) in which the book-reading son of a carpenter is invited to teach Latin to the children of the local mayor. From this stroke of fortune he launches improbably upward through the social order, relying upon his excellent memory, the dictates of his combative and resentful pride, and his attractiveness to women. He idolizes Napoleon and wishes he’d been born just 20 years earlier, when a man like him, regardless of social position, might see himself a general “at six and thirty” — but now, in a post-heroic age, boudoirs are battlefields and hypocrisy is a greater virtue than courage.

Walks with Men, Ann Beattie

A novella about a young literary aspirant who allows herself to be seduced by an older writer. He instructs her in the finer points of cultural snobbery, proves to be already married, divorces and marries her instead, and then disappears, leaving her a lot of money, angst, and specific rules about cocktail napkins.

Guided Tours of Hell, by Francine Prose

A volume composed of two novellas. The first concerns the inner turmoil of a writer at a Kafka conference who is visiting, along with the other conference attendees, a former concentration camp. He finds himself hating the self-assertion and envying the sexual conquests of a holocaust-survivor from this very camp, who is also at the conference. He recognizes the embarrassing incongruity of his petty concerns and the grim horror he is supposed to be witnessing, and this contrast becomes the basis for an excruciating dark satire.

The second novella concerns the inner confusions of a young woman employed by a travel newsletter whose boss and ill-defined lover has repeatedly used their research trips to Paris to conduct an affair, but has, on this occasion, sent her to Paris alone. Is he signalling the end of their affair? Paris takes on the qualities of her despair. This second novella has a tour-de-force chapter in which the protagonist is mistaken for someone else and given a personal tour of the Rodin Museum, where brilliant ekphrastic descriptions of the art in the museum are paired with and partially express her existential crisis.

The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner, by Alan Silitoe

A collection of stories featuring mostly working class British boys and men in the years between the two world wars. It is a hopeless context of grinding poverty, and it makes for sad stories. Silitoe scrounges what sparks of defiance and ephemeral beauty he can from the lives of his emotionally stunted, violently policed, and economically exploited anti-heroes. The title story, in particular, is a shaken fist: a boy consigned to a Borstal (a kind of youth detention center) for robbing a bakery, is picked out by the Borstal’s overseer to represent the institution in an important race, but he stops just short of the finish and refuses to win, even though he knows this act will infuriate the overseer, put an end to the dream his jailers have been trying to instill in him of making an honest living as an athlete, and turn the remainder of his detention into a living hell. Despite all that, he refuses to be exploited by his jailers. Silitoe writes structurally crystalline stories, often in the first person, adopting a voice of rough eloquence and slangy energy that unspools in huge yet very readable paragraphs.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

A man writes to his brother-in-law, relating the tale of his wife’s first, disastrous marriage, chiefly via excerpts from her diaries and letters. It is Gothic in language and atmosphere, because Anne was after all a Brontë, but it has no element of the supernatural — the enemy here is alcoholism, the marriage laws and social mores of Victorian England, and the implacable violence of the male libido. It reminded me of — of all things — Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. I think that’s because of something about the linear, inexorable course of the diary portion of the novel and a certain dogged, moralizing realism. Anne is, however, an infinitely better writer of sentences than Dreiser, so there was no point in the reading of this book where I considered that I would prefer to hit myself in the face with a cast-iron skillet rather than to keep reading — and I like that in a book.

The Seven Madmen, by Roberto Arlt

A novel of madcap monologues and omnidirectional ill-content, about an Argentinian embezzler who loses his job and his wife and throws in with an outlandish plotter of revolutions. It didn’t do much for me, and I actually found this essay by Aaron Bady, which I read after finishing the novel, more useful for my purposes than the novel itself. A shameful thing to admit, but there you have it.

Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb

A novella about the brief, comically degrading career of a non-Japanese woman (based upon the real life experiences of the author herself) at a major Japanese company, and especially her love-hate relationship with the Japanese woman who is her immediate superior. The protagonist plummets from writing reports all the way to cleaning the bathrooms, locked in a pride-off with her enemy. The hyper-focus of the narrative creates a kind of literary chiaroscuro that I found enthralling: I can see why Amélie Nothomb is something of a superstar in the Francophone literary world (though I understand this also has to do with Nothomb’s tendency to ostentatious millinery).

The Kingdom, by Emmanuel Carrère

A memoir of the author’s conversion to and deconversion from Catholicism, together with a novelistic reimagining of the life of the ostensible New Testament author Luke. The book is suffused by the central self-doubts occasioned by an experience of conversion or deconversion: you bear in your own memory the traces of another person who was you, and yet a diametrical consciousness. You have been permanently disabused of the notion that you have a continuous or coherent self. In the future you could be a different person again. The narrative that is supposed to define you is fragmented, fissured. So really what it’s about, more than anything, is conversion as a psychological phenomenon.

Hemlock and After, by Angus Wilson

A novel about the last days of a famous writer, who is also a semi-closeted gay man. His success in getting the government to endow an institution to support young poets leads to an enemy (a local procuress for pedophiles) outing him, which ends up affecting all his relationships in different and surprising ways, including his relationship to his wife, long immured in a hell of paranoid psychosis. The language was a revelation, a kind of mandarin, high-density, syntactically perfect eloquence. It reminded me of Anita Brookner, though Wilson is far less sensuously evocative and a little less forgiving. This kind of prose is the fortified wine of literature. Keep it on hand, portion it out, savor it.

Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates, ed. Lee Milazzo

From a series that compiles the major interviews and profiles of contemporary authors. I am very interested in just about everything pertaining to Joyce Carol Oates, but this book was a travesty and a disappointment — not because of Oates but because of the unrelenting stupidity of every person, apparently, who has ever interviewed her. Basically, she is asked over and over in a million different ways just two questions: how and why do you write so much? And why is there violence in your stories even though you’re a frail-looking women with large eyes? This compilation, which I finished in horrified fascination, essentially features her many strategems to deal with the tedium of these repeat questions: sometimes she answers frankly, other times offers the equivalent of a cut-and-paste, other times pivots like a politician to talk about something she actually cares about, other times teases the journalist with purposefully outlandish responses. Nothing has ever made me more horrified by the idea of literary fame: this is what it amounts to?

Oriental Tales, by Marguerite Yourcenar

A small collection of tales, most of which are based on legends from various sources — Taoism, Hinduism, Serbian nationalism, The Tale of Genji — while a handful, despite having the same feel, are pulled straight from her imagination. They are tales not short stories because (this is my own distinction, I’m just making it up as I type) they have less to do with the psychology of characters and more to do with the patterning of narrative. The prose, as written and translated from French, is stately and perfect.

Refresh, Refresh, by Benjamin Percy

A collection of short stories set mostly in rural Oregon in the early 2000s. Full of mountains and forests, hunting and killing, godforsaken American towns, the psychological and social desolations wrought by the war in Iraq, and emotionally damaged, violent men. But the writing itself! Percy has a hyper-specific, sensually immersive style, often both emotionally wrenching and full of narrative tension, and it caused a serious flair-up of professional envy on my part. This is how I would like to write short stories, how I have not yet quite managed to write them, despite a certain amount of publishing success. (I mean in form: our subject matter could not be more different.) I read the collection three times and copied out many a passage to study, recognizing a lot of little tricks I could steal, from the structure of scenes, to the juxtaposition of sentences, to the rhythm of inner monologue, to the methods of indirect exposition, to the syntactic patterns of certain sentences. Most of all, Percy has a quality I call “gusto” — sheer energy vibrating in his words. More than anything in writing, I admire gusto, and I study it wherever I find it.

Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears, by Lászó F. Földényi

An essay collection combining art criticism, a loose and evocative kind of cultural history, and an exploration of “metaphysics” (in a sense that corresponds to the confusion that category has in bookstores, combining the occult and the philosophical cheek by jowl). I got an ARC of this book intending to review it and am now considering getting hold of Földényi’s early work on melancholy and his other recently published essay collection, The Glance of the Medusa, to write something a bit more substantial. These are essays with a compelling and frustrating texture, coy and yet allusively indicative of profudnity. I can’t think of another essayist now living who writes this kind of thing, especially now that George Steiner and Elias Canetti are both dead. (Well, perhaps Roberto Calasso approximates. And, I suppose, Giorgio Agamben. Fine, Földényi’s not unique.)

Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey

An urban fantasy detective novel. This is my preferred audiobook genre to listen to while tramping around cities — I’ve listened to the collective dozens of books comprising Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, Tad William’s Bobby Dollar. I’m an addict, I keep coming back for another hit of wise-cracking hard-boiled heroes battling angels and demons and vampires and dark sorcerers on the gritty streets of some city or other. Butcher’s Chicago, Williams’s San Judas, Aaronovitch’s London, Kadrey’s Los Angeles. Every city needs their noir fantasy detective, probably. Maybe I’ll try my hand at the genre someday (I’d keenly like to assay a less misogynist, less macho version of this protagonist template, and to kick the poetry of the noir style up to truly outlandish levels). So we’ll just call my addiction to the genre research.

Book Log: January 2020

The Man of Feeling, by Javier Marías.

A short novel about an opera singer who falls in love with the unhappy wife of a banker. The real power of the book—and it is powerful—is the narrator, the opera singer, whose meticulous and at times pedantic voice takes over the narrative in a way that reminded me of Thomas Bernhard, while retaining more of the features of the traditionally suspenseful plot than do Bernhard’s novels. The plot was like a shoal beneath a froth of absorbing digressions and reflections, which would suddenly appear in front of my readerly boat and threaten to capsize the whole thing.

Jade War, by Fonda Lee.

The second volume in Lee’s Green Bone Saga. The series is Godfather-esque intergenerational crime-family fiction set in an era of 20th century technology but in an alternate universe or secondary-world where the mineral jade lends magical strength, speed, and hardiness to those who can handle it. It reads like science fiction, though technically I suppose it is fantasy. Via the stories of several key individuals, it traces the evolution of the island of Kekon, the greenbone clans who rule it, and the larger world. Kekon’s history and culture seem to be based on an amalgamation of Korea and Japan.

Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight, and Europe in Winter, by Dave Hutchinson.

These three books form three quarters of a near future science fiction sequence about European borders, smuggling, pocket-universes, and skullduggery. Each book stands alone despite taking place in a shared future and featuring overlapping sets of characters. Each book has the overpowering richness of a novel written by a short story writer, from which it is saved by also having the pacing of a spy thriller. I’ve heard it described as the love-child of John Le Carré and China Miéville, and although I usually despise that kind of description-by-comparison, it is surprisingly apt in this case.

The Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle.

A novel about two couples whose lives violently intersect: a pair of undocumented immigrants trying to survive by wild-camping while they scrounge for work, and two upper-middle-class U.S. citizens living in a gated community where their shallow liberalism is being undermined by peer pressure and self-interest. It hurts and feels true.

The Blue Angel, by Francine Prose.

A novel about a creative writing professor at a small New England college who develops an extremely improper crush on one of his students — old ground for a literary novel in every respect. Ultimately it becomes a college sexual harassment novel, and it provoked a lot of critical disagreement as to what Francine Prose’s point about sexual harassment was, exactly. (Does a novel that provokes moral reflection automatically have a moral message?) Before it becomes a sexual harassment novel, however, it’s also a novel about the secret, the treasure of good writing.

The Sound of the Mountain, by Yasunari Kawabata (trans. Edward Seidensticker).

A terse, painterly novel about an old man with memory problems feebly dealing with the bad marriages of his two children. It reads like an oblique psychodrama punctuated by nature poetry — unlike anything I’ve encountered, and deeply beguiling. Also, like seemingly half the 20th century Japanese novels I have read, one of its subplots concerns the old man falling in love with his daughter-in-law. This must have been a prominent dramatic situation in a society of multi-generational housing, paper thin walls, and filial piety.

A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, by Kat Howard.

A short story collection by a fantasist, heavily featuring Arthurian and Roman Catholic themes, figures, and situations, re-imagined as feminist urban fantasy. Six years ago, reading one of the stories collected here when it was first published in Clarkesworld — “The Saint of the Sidewalks” — reignited my childhood desire to write speculative fiction, a desire which has recently blossomed into the beginnings of a career. I have nothing but good to say about Howard.

The Bad Side of Books, by D.H. Lawrence.

At long last an in-print compilation of Lawrence’s non-fiction to replace the out-of-print collection entitled Phoenix. I’m reviewing it at length for LARB, so I won’t say much here, except to note that the pieces were chosen by Geoff Dyer and really illustrate the very worst and the very best of Lawrence: and the very worst is terrible (windy gender essentialist metaphysics, racism, eugenicism, lazy editorializing, and sheer overpowering tedium), and the very best is excellent (some of the most living descriptions of nature and human life in English, incredible perceptiveness about the work of others, a compelling defense of the autonomy of literature, unflagging stylistic originality).

As you can see, it was a relatively meager month of reading, thanks to a good deal of exhausting travel and a fair amount of sickness that kept my nose out of books and into tissues. Next month, which I will be lucky to spend in proximity to several very good libraries, promises to be much richer.