Sunday, June 22, 2008

June, cont'd


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz : This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, currently all the rage, and it’s pretty damn wonderful (wondrous) so far. Two epigraphs and an introductory chapter frame the idea of the novel a bit too thoroughly before the players are even introduced, but as opposed to someone like Zadie Smith, Diaz actually cares about his characters’ lives and not just the idea of their lives. I haven’t loved a protagonist this much in a long, long time, which probably says a lot about my inner nerd.

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 16 by Will Eisner : I’d previously read the earliest, and fairly conventional, Spirit comics from 1940 (collected in volume one), and after seeing the teaser for the new Frank Miller film adaptation (which looks all wrong, by the way, like an unnecessary extension of the lame-brained Sin City), I thought I should catch up with The Spirit post-WWII, when Eisner was defining new rules of comics storytelling and creating the so-called Citizen Kane of comics. There’s no doubt that Eisner is a master, as evidenced by his later Contract with God series (the second novel, A Life Force, is the masterpiece that the first is often claimed to be), and pretty much every seven-pager of The Spirit circa 1948 has many clever new ways of telling a standard action story. Each one is packed with detail, but with a very impressive narrative economy, and the splash pages are quite something. The minstrel character Ebony is still around, and his appearances are even more disconcerting in the 1948 comics than in those from 1940. Maybe Eisner is trying to tackle a serious subject when Ebony has a flash of a noose while on the lam after stealing a dog, but the caricatured depiction makes it seem that Eisner is simply ignorant of the stereotypes he’s reproducing. Ebony is even told, “It is your kind of villain who makes this community so unsafe,” with, unbelievably, no detectable irony. And why is it wrong when Ebony threatens to kill a bad guy, while it’s just good fun when the Spirit piles up dead bodies?

Other recent reads:

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata : A great translation by one Edward G. Seidensticker. Either Kawabata is such a great writer that the beauty of his prose comes through effortlessly in English, or Seidensticker is something of a poet himself. It is soothing to read about the coldness and darkness of wintry Japan during the heat of summer, while the warmth of the novel comes exclusively from the characters, who speak in peculiar ways, with plenty of double and other multiple entendres. I expected a 50’s Japanese novel about a geisha would probably be fairly misogynistic, but this captures the ambivalence of the character Komako’s position pretty well. A great book, masked by its subtlety.

Herzog, in the end, is probably a masterpiece, though so particular to the time in which it was written that it is hard to capture the relevance of its ideas. Do people experience Herzog’s anxieties and philosophical crises anymore? Being alive in the modern world, being anonymous, the end of moral suffering? Probably not, so a novel in which he is set up as ambassador of the human race seems a bit odd in 2008. African Americans and transvestites and homosexuals (and everyone who is not Herzog) are often lingering in the background of his world, and it is too painfully obvious that they could never be front and center in a Saul Bellow novel. But still, the greatest stylist of his era? For sure. Herzog makes novels with plots seem absurd.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

May & June


Herzog by Saul Bellow : I’m 50 pages in, and at this point the book is a bit too masculine and too heterosexual for my tastes (i.e. Bellow is great at describing what women mean to men, but doesn’t know how to describe women, etc.). That would be fine if that was simply the approach Bellow had taken to this specific material, but his style and his worldview seem to be synonymous, so that it is hard to imagine him writing about any other sort of character in any other manner (and from my other Bellow experiences, Seize the Day and Henderson the Rain King, it seems his protagonists are always more or less the same as Herzog). I guess I should appreciate that he knows his limits, and pushes himself more on a formal level than an empathetic one. Otherwise, this is really a novel’s novel by a writer’s writer, and is holding my interest based on the quality of the writing alone. Showy novels can be stifling, but this one already has a number of beautiful moments to its credit. Great rambling structure, too.

Other recent reads:

Wrack and Ruin by Don Lee : An immensely entertaining read, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see optioned by Hollywood. Elmore Leonard comes to mind. Everything that can possibly (and impossibly) happen, happens, but there’s a nice lackadaisical quality to the whole, and some pleasant themes floating around. I was reminded of that speech by Gandalf, choosing between what is easy and what is right. Here the choice seems to be between what is comfortable and what one truly desires. There’s a strange pleasure in seeing the two brothers become more and more bruised and broken as the novel progresses, and most importantly, the writing is often hilarious. I appreciate any book that takes time to ponder the fate of one hit wonder Christopher Cross. Mad props to former Macalester College professor Don Lee.

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser : Millhauser definitely has a list fetish, and the same perverse interest in the products of human ambition as his subject (who is made to stand in for that category of men at the turn of the century who became entrepreneurs, tycoons, and World’s Fair designers). The book is more about an idea than about its characters (and nearly dialogue-free). Plot-wise, the only real development is an escalation of monotony—Martin builds grander and grander buildings, endlessly—but every word is deliberate (Millhauser excuses his stylistic eccentricities by drawing a parallel between his own and Martin’s; novel-writing is his version of dreaming), and there’s always an implicit guarantee that the last few pages will respond to the previous three hundred in a big way. That’s exactly what happens—my expectation was that the dream would collapse, but instead Martin just walks away from it, lingeringly. The book wisely sidesteps some potential pitfalls—there’s no clever post-modern trickery here, and no attempt for relevance to the world as it is today. It’s also not about evoking a bygone era (though it does that); it records how the world feels when life seems fated, or like a dream. And Chapter 3 is one of the most stunning things I’ve ever read.

John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James : Novels about religion (primarily Christianity, and specifically Catholicism) usually baffle me (Wise Blood, The Power and the Glory, etc.), but this one is both very entertaining and fairly enlightening. There’s an archetypal battle between good and evil at the center, but the characters are very well drawn. There’s also a whole lot of nymphomania and pedophilia (and accompanying questions of homosexuality), but in a roundabout way, the book ends up celebrating women and homosexuality (or at least the ability to perform one’s true identity). Mad props to Macalester College professor Marlon James.

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo : A brief novel, but one that continually redefines itself. A belief in time is essential for establishing a concept of self—that seems to be the ultimate conclusion, though there are ideas and moments along the way that are more interesting. Crucial realizations for the 21st century abound; there’s a very funny line (I don’t remember it exactly) in which a character looks at some manufactured product, and realizes that its manufacturing is a part of the way the world works, and that’s just the way things are. I can’t think of a more precise writer than DeLillo, but here he uses his talents to show how imprecise language can be. And in so doing, proves the opposite.


Taking It All In by Pauline Kael : I’ve been browsing through some of Pauline Kael’s early 80s movie reviews. She was as hard to please then as ever. She can be quite nitpicky, and I have to wonder, doesn’t she realize how oppressive a perfect movie can be? But she’s like a theater critic in a way, taking great joy in picking things apart (performances especially). I wonder how despairing she would be of the worst bad movies today. She is resolute and persuasive even when I disagree with her (No on Fitzcarraldo? Seriously?).

And a couple I didn’t have time to finish during the semester:

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani : The surprise ending was spoiled for me, and my reading was so prolonged anyway that the potency probably would have been diminished. I don’t feel one way or the other about the final revelation, though my ambivalence probably says something about its effectiveness. Otherwise, the book can be maddeningly trivial at times, though that’s part of its charm.

Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra : This is a great novel. For Chandra, the ideal story would seemingly include everything, and that’s what his follow-up to this one, the 900-page Sacred Games, apparently does. Maybe I’ll get around to that book sometime within the next 50 years (right after I finish War and Peace).

Mission Statement

My name is Geoff Stueven and I just finished my junior year studying English and Creative Writing at Macalester College. Summertime blues and sheer boredom led to the idea of this blog, in which I'll keep an update of reflections on each book I read. I mostly read novels, because I don't really enjoy anything else (though I sometimes read comic books, short stories, movie review anthologies, and punk rock histories). The first post (after this one) will include everything I've read since school let out a month ago. I'm sure you can't wait.