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.

Comments

Your description of Lawrence’s essays would also work well as a description of his fiction and his poems. I should get my hands on that book, I guess.

I enjoyed the roundup, as usual. It is a good format.

Robert Minto says:

I’ve not read any of the poetry, but I have read most of the fiction. I get on better with the essays. The exception being SONS AND LOVERS, which I adore for some reason I can’t put my finger on and have reread three times.

Dorian says:

Gotta say, I can’t imagine anyone liking DHL’s essays more than his fiction. He excelled in many genres, but not, for me, in the essay. Have you read his short stories? Some really excellent stuff there.

Like Tom, I enjoyed the round-up. I’ve had my eye on the Fonda Lees, but I notice you are not especially effusive about it. Are they just ok?

It’s been years, but I remember disliking the Prose. Maybe my memory is just clouded by her disastrous visit to my institution, where she really phoned it in.

Robert Minto says:

I have read DHL’s short stories, and I like many of them very much! But yeah, I prefer his essays. I have an unreasonable fondness for the essay though, especially in its more grotesque mutations, whereas you are a narrative guy to the core, and I bet our difference of appreciation stems from that.

Re: Fonda Lee… I excised a few sentences from my original draft of this summary out of tact. The general drift was: she uses a kind of stylistic monotone that makes the whole thing very easy to inhale and very hard to feel strongly about. At least for me.

Dorian says:

That’s helpful re: the Lee. I’ll check them out from the library at some point, but not anytime soon. (BTW do you know a book called The Goblin’s Apprentice? I started the audiobook today, based on a Twitter thread on good standalone fantasy novels.)

You are right, I am a narrative guy through and through. Strangely enough, I can’t imagine ever writing it, whereas essays (which I also love, but less than you) is something I’ve been able to at least try to write.

Re: Dyer, yeah his shtick only occasionally works for me. I do think his Lawrence book is the best of the ones I’ve read by him.

Robert Minto says:

I don’t know of a standalone fantasy novel called The Goblin’s Apprentice, though I have heard of a series with that title in it. Perhaps you mean Addison’s The Goblin Emperor? That I have read, and I liked it very much because I’m a sucker for genre fiction which an unusually high proportion of character to plot!

(I bet you could write good stories. My experience is that when people who really love narrative and are really knowledgeable about it try their hand, if they can overcome the obstacle of self-consciousness they’re almost always better than they expect!)

Dorian says:

You’re right: Goblin Emperor is what I mean. Glad to hear you rate it highly.
Yeah, the self-consciousness problem. But more the no idea what I would write problem. And the lack of desire problem. Big problems.

I suppose I liked Studies in Classic American Literature as much or more than any of the Lawrence novels I have read. It does not have a scene with a bunch of nude guys discussing African sculpture, I grant that.

Lawrence’s short fiction has all kinds of wonderful things, but also everything Robert put in parentheses after the word “terrible.” Some of it about made my jaw drop, just about. That was a wild ride Lawrence went on in the 1920s.

Dorian says:

I admit I sometimes pretend Lawrence didn’t write anything after 1923. Lots of bizarre and problematic things before then, but the last few years of his life… whew!

Cam says:

I was delighted to learn that the Kat Howard collection is out and have just today picked it up at the library. Looks like fun.

Robert Minto says:

It is!