R E A D I N G S
This is a list, in reverse chronological order, of books I've read in the last little while and my comments upon them. Find in it what meaning you wish; I'm sure you can tell a great deal about me from these notes, if you've the proper powers of interpretation (or postmodern powers of analysis, in which case you can come up with whatever you wish to find).
Those less inclined to over-analysis might find that I've a penchant for les romans noirs along with my literature. What this means, I'm not sure. You tell me, if you like.
(The dates here are the dates of completion; not infrequently, I start a book considerably earlier than other books that I finish first. I usually seem to have 3-5 books going at once. The non-fiction tends to take rather longer. Ocasionally, as well, I get lazy and leave out a bunch of books I've read. These parts are marked with ellipses. Lastly, the computer books aren't here.)
James B. Stewart, Den of Thieves
A depressing account of insider trading, greed and destruction on Wall Street. It's hard to see how this isn't still going on now, and hard to see how it could be stopped. (2000-02-10)
G. Pascal Zachary, Showstopper!
An account of Dave Cutler's move from Digital to Microsoft and the making of Windows NT.
Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall
Frank Partnoy, Fiasco: The Inside Story of a Wall Street
Written by an ex-Morgan-Stanley DPG (Derivatives Product Group) salesman, this is sort of a Liar's Poker that makes the investment banking industry look nastier. (And it gives enough technical information to keep things interesting, too.) Summary: investment banks are screwing everyone they come into contact with as hard as they can. They do this by selling products which they have better knowledge of than their clients. (No big surprise here, but annoying none the less.) (2001-01-30)
Jennifer Edstrom and Marlin Eller, Barbarians Led by
This perhaps makes Microsoft look slightly less awful than others see them, though they still look pretty bad.
Seicho Matsumoto, Inspector Imanishi Investigates
A police procedural set in Japan, written around 1960. As well as being a good procedural, it provides a bit of a picture as to what life was like there at that time. (2001-01-12)
Isaac Adamson, Tokyo Suckerpunch
Pretty amusing, though closer to James Bond than the Chandler. In the first line you learn the protaganist's sole weakness; his introspection is more style than substance. Fun. (2000-01-11)
Philip K. Dick, Do Anderoids Dream of Electric Sheep?
John Mortimer, The First Rumple Omnibus
Containing Rumple of the Bailey, The Trials of Rumpole and Rumpole's Return, somehow even this isn't too much, and I devoured the whole thing in the course of two or three long baths. (2000-01-10)
Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities
Well, certainly not anywhere near Anna Karenina (despite Wolfe's hopes), but somewhat shorter, in some ways a lot more fun, and truly impossible to put down. I started it one afternoon and was finished by the next morning. The characters are a bit unapproachable; they're more melanges of traits of various groups than real people. It's hard to feel too much sympathy for them. (2000-01-09)
Will Ferguson, Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan
Will Furguson has a bit of a mean streak but, perhaps in part because of that, he's a very funny writer. I first encountered his work by reading Why I Hate Canadians, which, sadly, is unlikely to be nominated for the Governor General's Prize any time soon. Perhaps Americans won't notice, but this book too offers some insight into Canadians (as well as the Japanese).
The book itself is about his trip hitchiking the south end of Japan to the north, under the pretense of following the sakura zensen, the tide of cherry blossoms as it sweeps north across the nation. I extract a passage from the book to indicate his deep understanding of Japanese customs:
During their brief explosion, the cherry blossoms are said to represent the aesthetics of poignant, fleeing beauty: ephemeral, delicate in their passing. The way to celebrate this poignancy, naturally, is to drink large amounts of saké and sing raucous songs until you topple over backward. It is all very fleeting and beautiful.
Akira Yoshimura, On Parole
Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn
Modris Eksteins, Walking Since Daybreak
Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner
Philip Kerr, Dead Meat
Jonathan Ames, What's Not to Love
Jim Thompson, The Getaway
A nasty, wonderful little black thing. Perhaps some noir like this gave Le Carré some of his ideas on how friends, relations and lovers get along.
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
My third reading, and I still find this world of plongeurs and tramps fascinating. And for those who, unlike me, are not in sympathy with his politics, you can skip those little bits (quite well separated) and draw your opinions from the reporting.
Jack Seward, The Japanese
Surely as sympathetic a view of Japan as one can get from an American who invaded and stayed after the war, and he obviously loves the place in his own way. But there are other books that provide a picture less coloured by being a mid-twentieth-century American.
Joseph Conrad, Almayer's Folly
Wayne Johnston, The Divine Ryans
I don't know what it is, but almost all CanLit seems to have the same sort of feel. And I seem to like it, too--perhaps it's just my background coming out. (Nothing like being raised in Edmonton to make you feel Canadian.) At any rate, this book was awfully amusing, and even has a little of something like Portnoy's Complaint shining through it, though the narrator is much less ludicrous. (2000-09-06)
Joseph Connoly, This Is It
A nice, light, amusing read. Most people, I'd think, don't have quite such complicated lives and wouldn't get in to quite so much trouble walking under a bus. (2000-09-05)
Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
I bought this on a impulse, after seeing Copenhagen, and while I'd realised how much more clever Arcadia is, I hadn't realised the depth of the cleverness. I started discovering all sorts of things I'd not noticed when seeing the play itself. I think this one calls for four or five re-reads. (2000-08-??)
Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
One of my favourite novels. Love (or in some cases, just romance) is indeed an unstoppable force, but not always for the good. (2000-08-??)
Dashiell Hammet, The Continental Op
Philip Kerr, Berlin Noir
This would be the third time I've read this trilogy (March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem). I'm strangely attracted to it. On the other hand, a woman I once knew said that she read it once, but couldn't stand to see it on her bookshelf, she found it so creepy, and got rid of it. (2000-08-??)
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
I can certainly see this sort of thing sealing his reputation as a `Catholic' writer. But it's much, much better than that. Still, for all it tells you about why people do the things they do, you never really know, do you? Perhaps that's the point of the book. (2000-08-??)
Edmund Crispin, The Moving Toyshop
Very, very witty. I've heard that this is his best book. At any rate, the very next thing to start on when you've run out of Caudwell. (2000-??-??)
Sarah Caudwell, The Sibyl in Her Grave
Her last novel, and perhaps this is not so sad as some would make out (though her recent death certainly is sad). This one, though it sparkled, somehow sparkled less than her earlier works (at least for me). Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt? (2000-??-??)
William H. Whyte, City: Redescovering the Center
I picked this up just to mention the author to someone else, poked my head in to it briefly, and didn't come out until I'd finished the book again. This is a truly fascinating description of how people work and interact in cities, and what causes some places to be good to live and work in, and others to be bad. I'd strongly recommend it to anyone who has or wants to have an opinion on urban design. (2000-07-16)
Geoff Dyer, Paris Trance
Definitely a late 20th centry novel, and one I rather enjoyed; I'm sure I'll read it again. But for some reason I've no way or even care to describe it. (2000-07-??)
Cornelius Ryan, The Last Battle
At times I found his `personalisation' (if that is the word to use) of events during the final battle for Berlin rather annoying; he can go on for several pages describing what particular individuals were doing on a certain morning, and this can get a bit tedious. But at other times this works, and involves one further in what might otherwise be a somewhat dry subject. Overall, I have to say I quite enjoyed reading this history, and it seems quite well researched. (2000-07-??)
John Keegan, The Battle for History
Essentially an annotated bibliography of what books covering World War II history are worth reading, with a few notes on various historical controversies and arguments, mostly resolved (at least to Keegan's satisfaction). (2000-07-??)
Melissa Bank, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing
Not as amusing as Helen Fielding, and yet not terribly deep, either. I would suppose this makes acceptable beach reading. (I don't go to beaches.) (2000-07-??)
Raymond Chandler, Pickup on Noon Street
It's funny how Chandler's style suddenly blossomed with The Big Sleep; the stories in this volume (which I believe mostly predate that novel) are filled with lines that, though superficially similar, sound bad, rather than clever. I find the conversation stilted instead of playful. (2000-07-??)
Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely
As with all of his novels, fantastic. Though he carriess about a gun in this one. (2000-07-??)
Philip Larkin, Jill
This is really the sort of novel I ought to like, but it just doesn't have the spark of something like Amis' Lucky Jim We end up feeling as detached from the narrator as he does from Oxford University life, and at the end we see his story the way he saw that life: as sort of a reverie that one wakes up from, but which hasn't really touched one at all. One sees why Larkin became the poet and Amis the novelist. (2000-07-??)
Graham Greene, The Human Factor
Wow. Le Carré was just a preparation for Green. I've never seen someone delve so deep into the human soul and come up with such treasures, morbid though they be. The moral, I suppose: you can never quit what you have started. (2000-06-30)
John Le Carré, A Small Town In Germany
Not nearly as depressing the second time around, but it still competes with The Naïve and Sentimental Lover for an edgewise look in to the things we'd rather not see about ourselves and others. (2000-06-24)
Martin Cruz Smith, Red Square
Another Arkady Renko novel. Who can resist? (2000-06-07)
Anthony Burgess, One Hand Clapping
I sort of accidently read this a second time; I picked it up because it was lying on my desk (where I'd forgotten to put it away after reading it last time) and almost before I knew it, I'd read the whole thing again. (I didn't record the previous reading here.)
It's interesting that this novel is so different from The Doctor is Sick, despite being written only a year later. Perhaps this is related to it being published under a different name (originally the author credit was to Joseph Kell). It's not nearly as comical as most of his novels, being more along the lines of A Clockwork Orange. But, as usual, he gets the speech of each character dead on.
This was recently made a film, but I never did see it. (2000-06-04)
Graham Greene, The Captain and the Enemy
I'm left a little stunned by this one. I suppose it was because I'd not read Greene for a while, but I'd forgotten how bleak he can be. `In my experience love was like an attack of flu and one recovered as quickly. Each love affair was like a vaccine. It helped you to get through the next attack more easily.' Yet there is always a bit of hope in his novels, too. I'll be mulling for a long time over the lessons in this one. (2000-06-03)
Anthony Burgess, The Doctor is Sick
Still one of my favourite Burgess novels, it took several years before I realised what a brilliant piece of work this is. His genius shows here in a very subtle way. (As does most of his work, really, except for his autobiography where it's completely obvious how brilliant he is.) Oh, and this book is also terribly funny, if you have the right sort of sense of humour. (2000-06-02)
Janwillem van de Wetering, The Japanese Corpse
I had a little more trouble than I usually have getting in to this one, but as it got going I found myself, as usual, enthralled. This has more action and adventure, as it were, than the other novels of his I've read, yet after reading it I also felt that I came better to understand van de Wetering's Zen-oriented philosophies. I can now see the Zen influence in his earlier works, in fact. Now I'm beginning to think that there's some sort of link between Zen and surrealism, though I'm not sure what. (2000-05-29)
Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
A dark, fantastic little piece of noir from the thirties. Reminded me more than a little of Jim Thompson. (2000-05-27)
Michael Bond, Monsieur Pamplemousse Omnibus Volume 2
(M. P. Takes the Cure, M. P. Aloft, M. P. Investigates, M. P. Rests his Case)
Volume 1 was lost somewhere below between here and M. Pamplemouse Afloat, so perhaps I continue my readings here without sufficient context. But take up any of his novels, and you will understand. Or, for that matter, take up Wodehouse: this is classic English comedy of the Jeeves and Wooster sort.
My sole complaint with this is the thickness; less than eight hundred pages, yet they must use such thick paper that it appears to be the size of Claressa or some such. (2000-05-25)
Martin Amis, Heavy Water
This collection of short stories ranges from classic Amis (`State of England') to a decent essay at SF (`The Janitor on Mars') to what seems like a twisted classic of American literature (`What Happened to Me on My Holiday'). I started many of these stories with doubts about whether Amis could carry them off, but he does, oh he does. (2000-05-24)
Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond
Whilst I rather like Nyman's music, he falls short of being great. He's got the popular tricks of Steve Reich, but Reich has substance in a way that Nyman doesn't.
My respect for Nyman has greatly increased after reading this book, however. What he says seems obvious after reading it, but that's just an indication that he has real insight in to how 20th century music works. This made clear many things I only knew instinctively, and also opened up many things I'd never really thought about. Perhaps it's only coïncidence, but after reading this the visceral beauty of Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano became completely clear to me. This, I would say, is the extent of his brilliance: having read and better understood the intellectual underpinings of what Cage was doing, I can now set all that aside and really appreicate the music.
In this second edition, Brian Eno provides a preface which is, sad to say, not useful. It may be that you can really enlighten someone musically via either making music or writing about it, but not both. But further conclusions on that will have to wait until I've read John Cage.
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
Thankfully short, yet fantastic, yet irritating. Perhaps it's just beacuse I no longer care for conspiracy theories (after reading Foucault's Pendulum many years ago, I think I'm done with that genre). This had some beautiful moments, though, particulary in The 'Scope when they start playing Stockhausen on the jukebox (I woke up the next morning with an irresistable urge to listen to Schnitke and Ligeti) and when Oedepa encounters the Inamorati Anonymous. And The Courier's Tragedy, the play within the play, as it were, is without question a work of genius.
One does wonder a bit, though, is it the more than ocassional impenetrability of Pynchon that accounts for his popularity? Everyone tells me that Vineland wasn't up to snuff, though it certainly wasn't a bad novel. Perhaps I'll re-read that after I essay Gravity's Rainbow and gain a better perspective on it all. (2000-04-??)
Hsi-Huey Liang, Berlin Before the Wall
A moderately interesting diary covering a Yale grad student's year in Berlin in 1953-1954, doing research on the German working class before WW I. He appears to be fantastically multi-lingual, speaking Chinese (his father was a Chinese diplomat in Prague), at least some Czech, English, French and German. And he can draw, too! Strangely enough, though, I really didn't get a very good sense of the city and the people. (2000-04-09)
Michael Bond, A Bear Called Paddington
Reading Bond's M. Pamplemousse novels prompted me to pick up this book, which I'd not read in decades. Basically a book of light, amusing trouble with a sticky bun. And quite charming drawings, including ones of Judy that would drive Humbert Humbert wild with desire.
Len Deighton, Funeral in Berlin
Not quite prose like Chandler, but close. (`Beneath me the city lay in huge patches of light and vast pools of darkness where rubble and grass fought gently for control of the universe.') On this third reading, though, I found the story didn't hold up as well. And I don't think I'm losing my taste for thrillers, it's just that Deighton's stories didn't really get it together until the Bernard Samson series. (2000-04-01)
Paul Gleye, Behind the Wall:
An American in East Germany, 1988-89
The diary of an architecture prof. who spent a year in just before the wall came down. I'm always fascinated by stories of life under communism, and this gives a pretty good picture of it. He tries to point out the good as well as the bad, but it's apparent that there wasn't a huge amount of it. Basically, it appears they managed to feed everyone and keep everyone warm, and that was about the extent of the achievement.
Brian Crozier, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire
An informative history, although with a pretty strong conservative bias. (This is obvious from the dust jacket, which is covered in prase from the likes of Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, and William F. Buckley Jr.) Crozier name-drops rather too much, going on about working in circles that bring him into contact with Thatcher and Regan, and he gets absolutely ridiculous at times. In one footnote he says, `The methods used by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy in the postwar decade to unmask alleged Soviet spies made him widely unpopular. However, most of those he accused were proved later to have been, indeed, working for the Soviet side.' Elsewhere he refers to George Orwell as `a repented ex-Socialist' (apparently on the basis of Animal Farm and 1984), which is outright nonsense. (Certainly Orwell actively fought against Communisim, but he was certainly never a conservative, and maintained essentially socialist ideals to the end, even while disapproving of the methods some were using to try to achieve them.) The book is probably worthwhile for its outline of the Soviet attempt to spread its power world-wide; I've not found another book that deals with exactly this topic.
Michael Herr, Dispatches
A sort of more serious Hunter-S.-Thompsonesque look at the Vietnam war; it's not a history of the war so much as an examination of the psychology of it on an American individual. The whole thing has a very '60s feel to it. I'm not sure that this is the best way to write about it, but it's certainly an interesting look in to that world.
Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany's
(This collection also includes `House of Flowers,' `A Diamond Guitar,' and `A Christmans Memory'.)
I can't admit to being a big fan of Truman Capote; I've poked at some of his work before but never really got going on it. `Breakfast at Tiffany's' is more interesting to me than his other work, but even so I'm not sure I would have been interested had it not been for the film (which I also found somewhat uneven at times). He is indeed, as he describes himself in the story, a writer who `writes about nothing.' I just can't connect with most of his characters.
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
More in the Anna Karrenina line; what's this love of blackness (or blackness of love?) that's come over me lately? I found a little to admire about Anna, but in Emma I find almost nothing; she's trapped herself in a world where she's constantly comparing her life to fantasies, and her life can never hope to match up. This induces a bitter struggle which is the ruin of not only her but all those around her.
This particular translation is somewhat bizarre. (In the Barnes and Noble edition they claim that the `original publisher' [with no indication of whom that might be] didn't credit the translator, and thus he remains anonymous. As is typical with these types of editions, one can assume the translation is old enough to be safely out of copyright.) The translator tends directly to import French words in to English from time to time (`to reconduct,' for example), but I never lost the sense, and in fact it was rather charming. The translation, for all its oddities, has a fair bit of life to it, and in fact feels more modern than some more recent translations I briefly looked at. (2000-03-22)
Pete Hamill, A Drinking Life
Certainly a fascinating memoir, though it has a subtle and incorrect implication that drinking has the same effect on everyone else's lives that it has on his. Or perhaps I'm just reading that in to it. But it always fascinates me to see how someone intelligent and literate deals with and comes out of a poor Brooklyn background. (2000-03-19)
Tim Parks, Europa
I more and more see myself in the books I read. is this just age? Am I a worse person now? Or just less boring? From time to time I would stray from the drifting interior monologue this book consists of, circling around the book as the narrator circles around his subject. But again, I'd come back, just as his thoughts came back to her. At times this was a little tough to hang on to, but the ending, though considered unsatisfactory by others, I thought was a good close. Of course, it was a a personal smack in the face for me; we spend the whole novel wondering what her name is, and it turns out to be the name of two of my exes, and I realise that this whole book describes a situation I am far too familiar with.... (2000-03-12)
Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
The sequel to Bridget Jones's Diary, this is just more of the same. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and I got more than a few laughs out of it. But there's not really much reason to read this one once you've read the first; Fielding is just skewering the same things over and over again.
When the first book came out, I enjoyed it immensely, seeing it as sort of a female version of Portnoy's Complaint. This time around, I'm not sure I like Jones as much. She's constantly being pulled out of scrapes by her friends and boyfriend, and never has a moment when she stands up for herself, makes her own decision, and displays what sort of a person she really is. I think every interesting person, no matter how compliant, does this at least once, and more and more as I read this, I got the feeling that Jones isn't an interesting person with an exaggerated set of neuroses, but is just dumb.
I think Fielding should have stopped with the first book, and left it at that. As it is, I expect we'll see a film as well, and lord knows what else. But I suppose a gal's got to make a living somehow. (2000-03-11)
W. Somerset Maugham, Collected Short Stories, Volume 3
These are the Ashenden stories--more vignettes, really--chronicling some events from the career of an author turned intelligence agent during the First World War. I should think they provided some inspiration and direction to Le Carré's work, which also paints the career of a spy as lacking in glamour and being somehwat tedious, in fact, and from time to time indicate that manipulation of others, both emotionally and otherwise, is what it's all about. At first one doesn't really see the point to these stories, it's so subtly shrouded in the light texture of these seemingly plain recountings of various events. But like a pontillist painting one's looked too closely at (though I'm sure Maughm would hate the comparison), when one steps back from the book at the end one discovers an interesting picture has built up, and perhaps it's not at all what you thought it to be. (2000-03-04)
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
As fantastic as it ever is; I'd not read this in years. I think I picked up a lot more from it on the second reading. I was certainly able to draw more comparisons between the characters and my life this time around, and the novel provided some occasion for pensive reflection. Knowing the outcome just makes the experience more powerful; one can see the forshadowing more clearly and better appreciate the careful structure. (2000-03-02)
Sebastian Faulks, The Girl at the Lion d'Or
The comparison to Anna Karenina and Veronsky is apt. I found the novel fascinating because even when it doesn't seem to be saying much, at the end one realises that every moment counted for something, each was a piece that made the whole what it is. As one character says, `I don't think I knew it was happening until it was already too late. There was no moment of decision, just a series of lost opportunities, moments when I could have resisted. I didn't see it as a deed, an action, until it was too late.' I'm amazed, too, at how accurately Faulks delineates certain feelings; I recognised them as terribly true. Recommended. (2000-02-19)
André Gide, The Immoralist
It's hard to imagine, in this day and age, that this novel could be found hugely shocking, much less be accused of `omnisexual abandon and perverse aestheticism.' But perhaps this is more a reflection on me, rather than the novel; I don't find its premise repulsive, or even odd. It seems to me it's just one choice about how to live, and certainly the consequences of this one are less than those of many others.
Janwillem van de Wetering, Tumbleweed
Grijpstra and DeGier again, gotta love 'em....
[A dozen-odd left out here, due to laziness....]
Martin Cruz Smith, Gorky Park
Well, the comparison with Le Carré is going a bit too far; the characters and emotions just don't have the same depth. But this is a rather decent thriller, and still good on the second reading. In a way, though, the characters and their actions are somewhat stereotypical; there's not a lot about them that says, `This is an interesting person' rather than `this is a person in a novel.' Still, worth a read for those obsessed by communism, as I am. (2000-01-07)
Jennifer Toth, The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels
Beneath New York City
Without question, this is a very depressing book. It would be hated by conservatives from the start, for confronting the underground dwellers of Manhattan without preconceptions, and will surely be anathema to liberals for showing that many of these people will never escape that life, no matter how much help they get. I found myself wondering why I've not ended up with them, and can only conclude that it's not time yet. Which is perhaps why this is most depressing of all for those of us not aimed at a split-level in the suburbs and an SUV. (2000-01-??)
Martin Amis, Success
One always tends to root for the underdog, especially when he's the protaganist talking to you directly. You know you're getting a filtered view of his life, and you know that often you're not just being shown things from his viewpoint, but that he's outright lying, yet you're willing to let yourself see the world as he sees it, rather than it is. The reversal starts much earlier than you'd think, in the middleof the first chapter, when you find yourself seeing and dismissing the world from the viewpoint of the rival, the one you think is the anti-hero. Subtly enough, Amis lets you brush him aside through most of the book, as it becomes obvious that Gregory is a habitual liar in the way that Terry isn't. But as the book continues, the true reversal happens, and you realise you've been mislead about who has the problems and who doesn't. But it's the same mendacity that you belive in real life, so why would you care to let go? You're never properly sure who to throw in with, as you approach the end: you realise it's true that `the yobs always win,' but as your belief in this grows, it's harder and harder to say that this is a good thing. (Not that you can ever bring yourself to say it's a bad thing, either). In the end, you dislike everyone. Now is that not the unpleasant truth? Fortunately it's not so painful after enough drugs or alcohol.... (1999-12-??)
P. G. Wodehouse, Psmith in the City
Classic Wodehouse, as they all are. Every one of his novels has a genius in it, but you get a bit closer look at him in this one. And you get a good look at London as well, which - to me at least - is a relief from all those large, draughty houses in the countryside. Read it, and luxurate in the prose; being an anglophile only adds to an already rich experience. (1999-12-??)
W. Somerset Maugham, Christmas Holiday
Much to the disappointment of my last lover, this is hardly a typical Christmas story, à la Dickens or It's a Wonderful Life. It's much more suited to me, certainly, being the story of an inadvertent member of the bourgeoisie having his eyes opened. But then, what it says is nothing new to me, and, timid as it is, I can't see the bourgeoisie caring for it much, so who's it written for? Like most creatures of this ilk, it's so right, yet so pointless, being incomprehensible to one side and the same old back-patting to the other. Just what Doris Lessing later did, without her discomfort, in fact. Good thing that it's a pretty good novel. (1999-12-24)
Martin Amis, Night Train
A good job of an existential novel narrated by a down-to-earth person, and the sort of crime novel I usually rather like. But even I'm not sure that life is really that pointless. On the other hand, I'm not sure it's not. (1999-12-19)
Vladmir Nabokov, Lolita
Basically, a literary version of a Jim Thompson novel. Nabokov is said to be one of the, if not the, best prose stylists since the war. I'm not sure about that. The awkward, pretentious, unlikable style, full of poor literary jokes, is exactly what one would expect of H.H., though, and a more finely and accurately crafted character I don't think I've ever seen. H.H. easily rivals Holden Caulfield. Nabokov even exceeds Thompson in creating a novel full of characters that one simply doesn't like at all. Fascinating as they are, there's nothing to like about any of them, is there? (1999-12-17)
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Roseanna
I found this novel a lot more interesting than I would expect, knowing what I now know about it. It's a police procedural to the core, with little characterisation. But it's a well done one, and offers an interesting, and perhaps more realistic, view of how a murder is solved than many more exciting crime novels do. (Hammett did the same: it's quite obvious in some of his stories what boring slog-work being a detective often is.) (1999-12-11)
Raymond Chandler, The High Window
Classic Chandler; what more need be said? I'm surprised at the number of people who have not read him, or even heard of him. I can only advise those who've not read him to pick up one of his books instantment. (1999-12-09)
Martin Amis, Money
Contrary to the title and what John Self, our faithful protaganist, repeats and dwells upon constantly, neither this book nor life are about money. From a first reading, too, you might get the idea that life is about dissipation (which sounds good by me), but it's not that, either. In the end, it's all a little more complex than we claim it is - though not all that much more complex--and there's a lot of shame involved. Amis's prose has its sterling moments:
I walked back to my sock in the thin rain. And the skies. Christ! In shades of kitchen mists, with eyes of light showing only murk and seams of film and grease, the air hung above and behind me like an old sink full of washing-up. Blasted, totalled, broken-winded, shot-faced London, doing time under sodden skies.
He's as amusing as his father at rare times, from the odd phrase (`I slithered lithely from my stool. This deed somehow necessitated a second manoeuvre, that of picking myself up off the floor.') to the fantastic long episode when Self goes to the opera. I think that Amis here, in the hyperbolic obsessions of his protaganist, has found something that exists in all of us, and, in this exaggerated form, made it clearer. (1999-12-05)
Keith Laumer, Deadfall
Filmed and reprinted as Fat Chance, this book is described on the back cover of my edition as a `spoof on the world of Raymond Chandler's famous private eye Philip Marlowe.' It is far from that. It does tend to go a just a little further than it needs to, as with the opening: `I wasn't working, just resting my ankles on the corner of my desk and wondering why I'd ever bought a pair of purple Argyles with lemon-yellow clocks; but the intellectual challenge was too much for me.' But it settles not into a spoof but a tribute. The story is good, and it's easy to forget you're not reading Chandler. Perhaps writing like this isn't particularly original, but it's well done. I've read it before; I'll read it again. (1999-12-02)
John Le Carré, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
When you get down to the essence of it, perhaps the simplest of Le Carré's novels, but it still says the same thing as all the others: life sucks if you're a good person. I belive it. I'll admit I also enjoy the generous chunk of good spycraft. (1999-11-25)
Clay Blair, Hitler's U-Boat War (Vol. 1, 1939-1942)
This is without question a thouroughly researched piece of work. It has basically nothing to do with Hitler, who hardly even rates a mention; presumably he's in the title because books with his name in the title sell better. Clay explodes a few myths, and his obvious conclusion is that, contrary to popular opinion, the U-Boats never had a hope of any real influence on the war. This is not likely interesting reading unless you have a fairly deep interest in this bit of history.
J. Robert Janes, Mayhem
This was originally titled Mirage, and I must admit the reasons for the title change elude me. Much as I'm interested in the period (early 1940s), the place (Nazi-occupied France), and the characters (Jean-Louis St. Cyr and Hermann Kohler, French and German investigators respectively), the book didn't really grab me. I thought that Len Deighton, in SS-GB, did a better job of illuminating the difficulties of such a situation. Also, perhaps, the plot was a little too complicated for me. I must admit to being not terribly fascinated by the mysteries themselves, but more attracted by the characters and the writing. This, I suppose, means I'm not a serious mystery reader. Just don't let Raymond Chandler find out. (1999-11-??)
Janwillem van de Wetering, The Streetbird
One reviewer described van de Wetering as `modernistic,' and I think that's an entirely appropriate epithet for his work. This one, in fact, tends even toward magical realism, touching as much upon myth as the factual Western view of the world. Yet in the end it's all only towards an understanding of the characters, and an unconvincing resolution is forgiven by this. (1999-11-??)
Michael Bond, Monsieur Pamplemousse Afloat
Aside from a minor death (not even of a person) earlier on in the novel, this seems hardly even a mystery novel until nearly the last chapter. This emphasises how enjoyable the novel itself is regardless of genre. M. Pamplemouse, despite seeming a bit stodgy at first, turns out to be a fair hedonist. (Perhaps he wasn't kidding about the liquor cabinet in his 2CV.) The descriptions of some of the pleasures he partakes of are enough to make one pack right up and head off to France. Trés amusant. I look forward to tracking down more of this series. (1999-10-31)
Dashiell Hammett, The Big Knockover
This assortment of stories (mostly feauring the Continental Op) varies in quality. At its best, it's classic Hammett. I rather like Hammett, though I find that I tend to stay emotionally distant from his characters, unlike, say, Philip Marlowe. Perhaps that's because many of Hammett's characters themselves appear not to have feelings. And my, there are a lot of guns in these stories. What was it Marlowe said about `so many guns, so few brains'? (1999-10-27)
The Curious Sofa, Ogdred Weary
`Alice was eating grapes in the park when Herbert, an extremely well-endowed young man, introduced himself to her.' So starts Edward Gorey's 1961 classic (described as `a pornographic work' - thus, presumably, the anagrammatic pseudonym), and Alice's adventures continue with well-formed, well-made, well-favoured, well-shaped, well-set-up, and well-proportioned men and women of all ages and persuasions. The combination of text and illustrations makes this one of the most charming books I've ever read; the vague air of menace in the background simply serves to add spice to the experience. (1999-10-25)
Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance
This had some great promise for me, especially given the amount of poetry quoted within. (And if you quote C. P. Cavafy, I'm almost willing to become a fan without question.) Yet it fell flat, and long before the end. Perhaps it was the lack of romance; there's a great distance in the novel between the narrator and the rest of the world, and the fantasy element only makes that worse, not better. While I may be able to identify with the protaganist in may respects, I'd rather not, because it gains me nothing. And that must be the novel's failing. (1999-10-17)
Javwillem van de Wetering, The Mind-Murders
In this Grijpstra & DeGier mystery we have prose and «pensés» to rival that of Sarah Caudwell; more subtle and more serious, if not quite as clever and amusing. I am still tracking down the earlier works, but this one strikes me as a classic murder mystery. For fully half the novel there is a `murder,' but no corpse. When they finally find a corpse, the murder has by that point vanished from the story. One is left with the simple (or perhaps not so simple) facts about how people work, regardless of the world around them. Very subtle, and highly recommended. (1999-10-15)
Jim Thompson, The Grifters
So it turns out that my relationship with my mother is not unique, after all. A classic noir, with tension, excitement and disappointment that goes far beyond just the plot. What is it that redeems the characters? (1999-10-13)
Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Balzac perhaps captured it best, but this, I think brings one a little closer (though not that much more) to understanding how one can fall in love with the wrong idea, and have the strength to pursue it. My admiration for Mr. Ripley really comes from his sense of independence, which is the difference between him and others (Gatsby or the Balzac characters - or even Balzac himself, who apparently died with a large bill owing to his tailor, and a larger one to his glovemaker). Ripley, in the end, is willing to forego the admiration of others in order to admire himself, which gives him two advantages. First, it puts him - in my philosophy--a step `above' (if you will accept that concept) those who construct their lives for the approval of others, and second, it makes his aims attainable, and, indeed, attained. One can make a sincere argument that this does indeed make him happier, because he's not so dependant on others to have what he wants. (1999-10-12)
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
Are women really like this? Though I'm loath to belive it, personal experience doesn't contradict me on this point. But then again, in my more depressing moments, even the men I see are just as they are in this book. Perhaps this novel exposes the vast majority of humanity for what they are, and in that, makes me value the things in my character, and those of others, that keep me from falling too deeply into this all to clear representation of how human beings actually work. Let me make it clear: I cannot despise anyone in this novel; there is too much of me, and the rest of humanity, in each character. But it's not at all comfortable seeing what people are really like; those of us who feel ourselves `beyond' the rest still maintain our own illusions, and Lessing sees through those.
This is a fair amount of work to get through, and it's not just the length that makes it so. Given the time, it would not be hard to write several long essays on all the uncomfortable things it's brought forth. One must re-read this. (1999-08-??)
(As well as books, I read a few magazines regularly. Mainly Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly and The Baffler. I don't read every issue of Granta and The Paris Review, but I read many of them.)