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Last year at the end of the year we posted a slew of impressions of books that left a lasting lingering impression on us, and this year, a few weeks into the new year (ie, 2014, assuming you're reading this deep in the future), we decided to do so again. So here's what we thought about a few books in 2013, presented in no particular order, although the first few were "tops" -- and the top one may be the highest peak in terms of our reading-related mountaineering history. To see future impressions as soon they see light, befriend or follow us on Goodreads and/or to a lesser extent on Twitter.

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann

A six-star masterpiece of authority, erudition, execution, insight, wisdom, relevance, characterization, and epic adventure. Move over, The Magic Mountain -- this one deserves your reputation and readership. Despite 1492 dense "Everyman's Library" pages, this one is much more engaging, moving, thematically hefty, and its incorporation of ancient history and mythology and DETAIL more often boggles than numbs the mind. There's an older translation with more biblical language, but this one by Woods flows like Tolstoy's take on a bit of the Old Testament. It's Mann, though -- you can tell by the gentle irony, massive doses of description, ridiculous depth of knowledge, and of course the old man's authorial crush on his pretty boy proto-ubermensch, proto-Christ, super-Jew protagonist, Joseph. The story as a whole suggests the story of Jesus, as well as the story of Osiris, but what I found more interesting was the subtle, intentionally ambiguous critique of Nazi Germany -- at times Joseph is the arrogant Aryan superman, at times his brothers are the brownshirts, at times Egypt is the aggressive expansionist empire. Toward the end, the story suggests post-Depression-era New Deal programs and Soviet collectivism. Like all great lit, this one explicitly champions ambiguity. Joseph is thrown into a well by his brothers -- a scene that rivals (maybe even surpasses) the one in The Magic Mountain when Hans is lost in the snow while skiing -- and sold into slavery, but it's all ultimately part of a playful "holy game" God plays on the brothers. Beyond exceptional social, historical, and theological thematic stuff, Mann's storytelling skills are ridiculous. He's long-winded at times, sure. He says "in short" and then rips off a meaty summarizing paragraph. But he's so in control and does such an extraordinary job of orientating the reader I at least never felt lost, never wondered who was talking (I'm looking at you, Proust), always felt right there in the desert with soft-spoken Rueben with his column legs, cross-eyed Leah, Rachel with the beautiful eyes, little Benjamin, on and on. So many characters, all of them with their reinforced distinguishing traits over several hundred pages. Very few women, most of them either idealized beautiful mother lovers or sultry and deceitful witch temptresses, but there are two freaking dwarves in this! DWARVES. One even gets cudgeled by his master as things almost veer toward comedy. Especially toward the end, it's good clean fun when the narrator more often directly addresses the reader, but all along you feel Mann leading you through the story, in absolute control of its every aspect, including giving it air and life. Considering that this extrapolates a few opaque lines in the bible into 1492 pages written over 16 years coinciding with the rise/fall of the Third Reich -- considering that this monumental novel about some of the earliest Jews was written while Mann's country exterminated six million of their mid-20th century vintage and tried to take over the world -- this might be a prime example of high-lit heroic insurgency. At times it reads like he's raising a huge middle finger and directing it at his tragically misguided homeland. But it's more than that. There's wisdom, instruction, even a few moments of magic, and hope that it's all part of God's plan, even the worldwide horror of WWII. Anyway, towering literary artistry to the nth degree. Considering how long it takes to read this one, the $40 hardback is totally worth it -- plus it comes with one of those snazzy built-in bookmark ribbons. 


My Struggle Vol. II: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This series is a multivolume masterpiece of sincerity. It’s epic literary autobiography, worthy of the traditional and more recent meanings of the modifier epic. A Norwegian living in Sweden may have written it but it fulfills David Foster Wallace’s prophecy about post-ironic fiction in the United States: “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.” By now, at least as Knausgaard presents Sweden in this volume, the notion of “U.S. life” can be expanded to include Western Civilization’s so-called First World, including Scandinavia. Like DFW, Knausgaard covers significant territory across apparently infinite pages but he doesn’t do it in a look Ma no hands backflipping with a smile sorta way. All the formal elements of traditional fiction are in place, sans gimmickry. No attention-getting footnotes or images or power points or graphs or numbered lists or Danielewskisms. No masturbatory flights of language en route to the celestial sublime. No silly set pieces or big dance numbers at the end. No talking pieces of poo. Nothing included for a joke. No excessive modifiers or anything that feels like it’s not part of the author’s attempt to stay as close as possible to what he perceives as the core of things, the honest truth of life. He also realizes that such a project may seem megalomaniacal, and he addresses this more than once, never mythologizing himself, always his worst critic, always forcing himself to submit to humility. What happens in this engrossing, readable, plot-less stretch of 573 beautifully formatted pages published by Archipelago? Mostly child care. 

If you're feeling up to it, here's the complete quotation-replete, 4K+-word impression on philadelphiareviewofbooks.com.


A Time for Everything by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Knausgaard's second book offers everything you need in a novel: authority, execution, audacity, oomph, heft. Other than a 75-page stretch midway where I worried this might have trouble maintaining the standard of excellence it had established, for ~425 nonconsecutive pages I was rapt, riveted, engaged, associating parts (the flood story, in general, is rising drama par excellence -- read 35 pages past bedtime one night to finish the section as the water rose) -- and I even ultimately gave the benefit of the doubt to that long stretch about Noah's sister that at first had comparatively seemed rushed and distracted/off the rails thanks to stuff really about the author's wife. But it recovered in retrospect -- by the end of the section it became clear that her love, her family, particularly the mundane daily tasks (cleaning), all gained significance knowing she and everyone with her would drown unless Noah took her aboard ye olde ark. Retroactive/spective change, with new sections changing perception of what preceded them, is a great strength and major theme of the novel.

Loved following the author's lead through biblical stories repositioned in a mythic Norway straight outta Growth of the Soil. Would love to find the Hamsun line the following Knausgaard line reminds me of:

    "the seed corn flows over his fingers when he dips his hand into the bag that hangs over his shoulder, with small, even flicks of his wrist it is sprinkled over the land as he walks across it, as if calling something to him all the time, as if this is some mysterious ritual, an exorcism, a prayer for a miracle, and see! a few weeks later it germinates and each cast of the hand can be read and judged." 
I'd suggest reading that one by Hamsun and the My Struggle series before taking this one on.

Loved how he complexified the Cain and Abel story.

   "The only things that have always been remembered are the story of the first people who were driven out of paradise and into the valley, the story of the two brothers Cain and Abel, and the story of the great flood. But all the details about these people and the world they lived in were gradually erased. And as each new age is convinced that it constitutes what is normal, that it represents the true condition of things, the people of the new age soon began to imagine the people of the previous one as an exact replica of themselves, in exactly the same setting. Thus Cain and Abel became nomadlike figures who lived and operated in a flat, burning hot, sand-filled world, of olive and fig trees, oases, camels, asses, robes, tents, and little whitewashed stone houses. Gone were all the pine trees, all the fjords and mountains, all the snow and rain, all the lynxes and bears, wolves and elk. In addition, all the infinitely delicate nuances in the relationship between the brothers were lost over time, such that only the bare details remained: Abel was good, Cain bad, Abel was a shepherd, Cain a tiller of the soil."
Dramatizing the complexity of black/white archetypes is something really great lit does best -- I don't like to think about lit/art as something that "serves society," that's functional or necessary or useful per se, but Complexity Emphasis is one of the arguments in lit's defense.

A really slant autobiography of sorts that, stylistically at least, ends where My Struggle begins. Daddy issues herein represented via God/angels interactions with us human folk. The autobiographical parallels crop up in Cain or Noah or the narrator at the end. A story from My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love appears in fictional form: in My Struggle it's pregnant Linda pissed at Karl Ove for not telling his friend to slow his speedboat down, whereas in this it's Noah's pregnant sister pissed at her husband for not telling a driver of a carriage going over a rocky road to slow down. The narrator (not named Karl Ove in this) cuts himself up again with a glass shard as he does in My Struggle Vol 2.

In a totally bold first-person coda that changes what you think about the preceding 450-something pages, there's a suggestion at the end that the narrator (author of the book you've been reading, not Knausgaard himself) is a prophet who might one day saw off his legs but there's no longer anything to prophesize these days, other than the pleasing benefits of noticing natural daily variation in the landscape (reminded me of the bit in My Struggle Vol 2 about how he only really cares about trees and water and sun).

Really an enjoyable, "rigorous" read, in part because the publisher Archipelago created a beautiful paperback with French flaps and a cover image that synchs with a bit toward the end of the novel.

Loved essayistic bits about how the art historical representation of angels changed over time along with their actual changing state. (Why do immortal angels change? Ahhh. Ya gotta read the book.)

Not touched on in the novel, but it struck me that some of these angels, say the one Ezekiel encountered with wheels, could've been outerspace aliens.

Not psyched that the angels' ultimate evolutionary destination was "spoiled" for me by a review on goodreads -- wish I'd experienced this clever little perception-shifting turn toward the end with fresh eyes.

Now that I've read 1500 pages of Knausgaard I am officially calling for a translation of his first novel -- seriously, English-language publishers, how is it not available?

Highly recommended for all semi-adventuresome readers fortified with a bit of interest in the early bible stories. Worth it for anyone who appreciates clear, flowing, steady, smart language, and who likes novels that make novels seem like infinitely open art forms.


Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

Expected proto-Nazi narrative propaganda. Instead found a mythic Norwegian backwoods agrarian Winesburg, Ohio emphasizing the virtue of hardwork/productivity for its own sake, cultivation (of soil and spirit), necessity over frivolity or desire for something more than nature provides, and literal/figurative rootedness. Loved the steady tone, how the tense switches within paragraphs (present tense for scenes, otherwise simple or continual past). Like in Tolstoy, POV able to access thoughts of so many characters thanks to steadiness. Loved the setting, the various character types, the morality, the petty power ploys, the longing for more than life in the woods, the vision of the devil with shivering pines nearby, the mines, Inger's randiness, the fallen tree, the big stone toward the end, the infanticides (and the overall overarching transcendent theme about achieving eternal life through cultivation of self, society, and soil). Only one anti-semitic comment toward the end uttered by one of the book's most charismatic characters -- he also rips Americans too -- whatever tempts settlers from life in synch with trees and mountains is dissed in this. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to join a back-to-the-land movement. Otherwise, not only is this enjoyable on a what happens next/story-progression level, it's instructive in terms of providing a positive model of perservence, dedication, hard work, even if Isak is pretty thick. Overall, this novel offers access to such a well-drawn world, a sort of Eden that's probably now (~120–150 years later) crossed with highways and strip malls. Wish I'd read this soon after Hunger back in 1994 or so. 


A Balcony in the Forest by Julien Gracq

Sumptuous prose, never over the top as in The Opposing Shore, steady, flowing, so clear its perception verges on surrealistic swervy poetry. Gracq might just be the supreme poet of anticipatory anxiety, and seculsion in a dense forest with the pulse of bombs on the horizon like heat lightning is therefore maybe his ideal setting. As in "The Opposing Shore," nothing much happens, which is the point for ninety-five percent of this as our man Lt. Grange (le focus of le novel's close-third POV) waits for the Germans to come through the forest near the Belgium border and raid the blockhouse in the trees where he and three subordinates are stationed. There's a little forest sprite in this -- an innocent widowed proto-hippie sexy child -- who might turn off folks turned off by male writers writing about sexy little sprites, but Mona worked for me because she emerged from the forest and seemed descended from the sexy little sprite in Undine, a myth I read a few months ago about a lady o' the forest who's equal parts woman and brook. It's gripping toward the end as the war (early WWII, 1939) ramps up, but the prose is what happens in this one. Let's just say that not in a long time have I thought about starting a book from the beginning as soon as I finished it. Felt it was perfectly weighted, paced, perceived. Can't recommend it more highly to anyone who appreciates it when tip-top prose sans empty experimentation supports masterful evocation of a world and character/theme/forward propulsion. Language in this seemed always at the level of Salter or Updike but with a surrealistic sheen that elevates it. Ordered four more short Gracq novels as a result. 


The Circle by Dave Eggers

Transparent prose in part about the hazards and hallelujahs of political and personal transparency. Often felt like a dramatized series of techie Ted Talks. Loved how the dystopian/utopian complexities effortlessly unraveled. Ideas for new programs engaged me and provided profluence for characters animated by the Circle's progression toward completion, although all characters seemed more animated than "real" -- more like profiles than 3D people, which is fine since this isn't really character-driven fiction. Loved the consistent descriptions of the campus and canoeing on the bay -- could see the setting and dreamed about the glass offices last night. At times felt like an important novel everyone slouched over phones should be forced to read. Zeitgeist uber alles. Ezra Pound said that lit is news that stays news, so it'll be interesting to see if these concepts about transparency, sharing, privacy -- better living through millions of all-seeing eyes transmitting images seen by billions everywhere -- stay news or if they're exaggerations of a facebookgoogleverse destined to one day go the way of friendster of yore? It's sort of more like a journalist's novel than a literary novelist's (ie, based on news/contemporary social-cultural issues than characters and what it's like to be alive right now)? At times I wondered why Eggers didn't spin a tech company off of McSweeney's to unify the internet and sink the disparate online armada of Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yelp, Linkedin. Funny that not a single novel is mentioned -- the best and the brightest work at the Circle but no one ever mentions reading novels. A great work novel, I often thought, mostly re: work/life balance and gradual integration of additional layers/responsibilities. Had a few issues with the main character Mae -- wish she were more of a rebel or at least thought for example the bit with Alastair and Portugal early on was batshit. I wish she were more conflicted early on during initial brainwashing/acclimation to the Circle's culture. The characterization of her two beaus chafed a bit too: one comes too quick and the other is repeatedly described as calligraphic. Loved the first scene with the Marianas Trench aquarium and the transparent shark but the second scene hammered the symbolism too hard? Book 3 probably could've gone on for more than three pages -- that's where a fifth star for this may have been hiding -- as is, the end felt rushed, too sudden, especially the thread with the calligraphic one. I expected a battle royale. Had trouble with the final cinematic scene with Mercer, too. Felt too easy and unbelievable? But in general, despite all these "frowns" for me, it was such a readable novel -- and I loved the experience of reading it: 491 airily formatted pages flew by -- easily read 50+ pages a day in a blink and plowed through the last 200 in two sittings in one day. A beautiful hard back too. Loved the design (not just the dust jacket but the boards of the book itself). Wanted to get to bed early and hunker down. Felt a little YA throughout, not quite adult fiction, which isn't a bad thing. Very accessible. Overall recommended to anyone with conflicted feelings about the current web. So many ideas we all have about oversharing and "likes" and corporate ownership of our profiles and words (s'up, Amazon) are dramatized herein. Steps in the direction of taking off the gloves and gouging out the eyes of the world. I just wish it took the story a bit further and let the Luddite 2.0 forces put up more of a fight at the end. As is, it's a gripping exaggerated dramatization of issues revolving around the current internet, but I wouldn't come to this hoping to find a convincing depiction of humanity. 


How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Funniest thing I've read in a while. Innumerable chuckles, chortles, snorts, and lots of LOLs. Recommended for writers "sick of all this lit shit." Read it thanks to reviews on here. Never heard of it. Gulped it down in 100-page days. Unputdownable. Perfect reproduction / satirization of craptastic literary styles, not to mention book expos, MFA programs, Oprah, author interviews, Hollywood types, Tom Clancy types. So many funny similes, asides, setups. And just when you think it's becoming too jaded/sarcastic, there's a change of heart. Lightly touches on themes of sincerity and authenticity. Loved the execution of the formulaic novel form (pathetic guy motivated by pathetic lovelorn urges concocts pathetic/brilliant plan, goes from rags to riches, but not without consequences or learning something true). Loved authorial attention to narrator's likeability. Loved how it plays by its own explicitly stated rules for writing a bestseller -- for example, including specific meals at specific restaurants in as many cities as possible that include likely readers, or having parts in cars because people listen to audiobooks while driving. Loved that when I wondered why he was taking shots at Yale I googled the author and read that he'd been president of the Harvard Lampoon. He writes for The Office, too. A recommended refresher for all. 


Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin

Flowing and surprisingly bold/powerful trio of interlinked novellas set in Budapest. Not at all a novelistic travelogue. Author does a remarkable job transposing his ex-pat perceptions into the lives of characters unlike each other or the author, each brought to life thanks to forward-flowing stories. Was a little worried at first thanks to the epigram and the first novella's focus that this might be a bit too "literary" for me, but the perception and the pace that animate these characters pushed those worries aside. In the middle, there's the audacious execution of a deepish POV story about a black solider from West Philly involved in some corrupt rascist military gun-dealin' crap, and this comes between the initial staid, vaguely Sebaldian novella about a Hungarian composer/Holocaust survivor and the third novella focused on a young white chubby American violinist from Boston who ecstatically loses her shit mid-opera in a moving, transporting display of artistic and personal independence that parallels similar yet totally different rebellions in the other parts. Deserves a much wider audience and way more ratings on here, but sadly one of the least generous, idiotically dismissive reviews ever to appear in NYT Book Review print stunted its growth upon publication a few years ago. (I include the link to the review because "low expectations totally exceeded" is always an enjoyable experience compared to "high expectations totally dashed.") Over time, I'm confident that good readers will read this book and right this wrong. The writer lives in Manayunk, which many claim is part of Philadelphia, and I know him, but I hereby swear my praise may be trusted. Surprisingly excellent stuff once again from Coffeehouse (see Leaving the Atocha Station). 


Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

I'd read Paul Bowles long ago and vaguely knew his wife wrote but not until I heard Paul Lisicky discuss this one on Book Fight (a literary book-discussion podcast thing run/posted/performed by two grad school friends) was this one on my radar. Turns out it's a well-loved classic, deservedly so. After listening to three writers talk about it for an hour, I had some preconceptions about its apparent irregularity/unconventionality -- and I expected something crazier per the podcast. But it seemed aligned with Salinger's stories of neurotic upper-class/upper-middle-class urbanites. There's the same sort of spiritual anxiety. Think of that surprisingly good-natured intelligent American angst in Franny & Zooey. They're of the same era, peri-WWII, precursors to the Beats. A generation later these serious ladies would explicitly conceive of their restlessness, impulsiveness, and need for freedom from traditional morality/activity as "finding themselves," and they'd be doing it en masse. Other than the stellar insightful sentences, the unpredictable movement, the rampant cleverness that never became cloying for me, the wonderfully dramatized conflicts between thought and action (ie, so often one of the ladies thinks no way she wants to do something and then says of course let's do it), for an American novel published in 1943 this one's a serious literary lighthouse for what once was called Women's Lib. Explicit physical lady love is still mostly under wraps in this and the book prospers thanks to that tension and subsequent attention to tenderness and affection, especially, as Paul Lisicky points out in the above-linked podcast, in the scene when Mrs Cunningham and Pacifica go to a rocky Panamanian beach for a morning swim after staying up all night. What makes this great is that the men also long for liberation, no matter how abrasive or proto-slacker these men might be. Everyone's after their freedom -- Arnold from his parents, Arnold's father from his wife, Andy from his past, Mrs. Cunningham from her depression, Ms Goering from her class. No mention of the war in Europe or the Pacific, interestingly -- not even a suggestion of it? In general, I loved the language, the crazy bits like Belle (the woman without arms or legs), descriptions of interiors of various bars and momentary side characters in Panama, the parallel feelings of elation felt by Cunningham and Goering, parallel suggestions that the ladies suffered some major insult/abuse/tragedy when younger, parallel letters from men trying to rationally explain their feelings, realistic non-melodramatic dramatization of disconnects in general, the fragility of Arnold's borrowed image of a plant trapped in thin ice. Not to mention the weird Javanese parallel, with Ms Gamelon (as in the percussive repetitious music of the Indonesian islands) and the crazy needy half-Irish/half-Javanese girl in Panama. Structurally, I didn't find it so odd. It felt more like a multi-part story than a novel? Anyone familiar with the movements of an attentively written, clever, contemporary short story would be at home here -- there's no overt plot other than sensing and calibrating the characters' spiritual progress and registering/associating thematic resonances (freedom, loneliness, friendship, hope). To say that nothing happens wouldn't make sense since stuff happens and moves the internal/thematic plot forward. Otherwise, certain sections were a bit of a drag for me often thanks to lack of transitions between scenes or not quite being sure who's talking -- lots of short paragraphs and dialogue throughout, with sudden unpredictable movement -- I had to go back and re-read after mini-zoneouts. Also, although I was interested in the characters, it's hard to pull for them (ie, "like" them), in part because, as life is described in the book, they're "medium fair" -- neutral good, not diabolical. They're real: they're selfish and generous, in search of internal peace and external beauty, complicated, acting not always in their best interest, and I guess that's likeable, or maybe I anticipated overindulgence in terms of the freedom quest and a cosmic smackdown for getting their way? Anyway, a great short book I'll try to reread one day since it's the type in which you surely miss so many dimensions and laughs the first time through. 


Commerical Fiction by Dave Housley

The best of these short tales inspired by recent TV commercials synched so well with my memory of the ads, filling in detail, humanizing things, undermining the spot's manipulative intent, revealing absurdity, and eliciting giddy LOLs. The list of titles in the TOC is brilliant in itself -- I'll try to post a pic of it later. The ones that really worked for me were "Cialis" (POV of wife in progressively colder bath water waiting for husband to get an erection in adjoining tub on the lawn of a fancy resort), "McDonalds" (crazy party with happy good-looking multiculti kids into Dave Mathews -- no drugs or drink but an existential hunger fulfilled by Micky D's), "Lexus" (family living way beyond its means, about to lose everything, for Xmas buys mom a new SUV complete with giant bow). At times reminded me of some of DFW's stories, not in approach or language but in theme -- human beings trapped in a hypercommercialized world. Sometimes surreal (especially the one based on that Subway commercial in which everyone has high voices after eating their subs). Always smart and fun. Totally skewed my experience of the adverts running during stops in this Sunday's Eagles/Packers game. Since I read the book, the publisher posted vids of the source commercials, which I'll now need to watch before re-reading. The stories are enjoyable if the commercial isn't readily recalled but having them all linked in one place can only deepen things. Anyway, an original project really nicely pulled off by "the poet laureate of pop culture," Barrelhouse editor, and all-around swell guy. 


Struggles with the Daemon: Holderlin, Kleist, Nietzche 
by Stefan Zweig

The take-home message is read everything Zweig ever wrote. Jeez. Such flowing, insightful, lucid prose, like a faucet streaming graceful intelligence across and down the pages. A good book for November's melancholic seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness. Holderlin the ethereal poet, Kleist the restless exaggerator, Nietzsche the inspired light. Totally compelling across the board biographical essays on creative genius and madness. Goethe comes up all the time as a sort of rational gubernatorial foil to these inspired/possessed folks. Like all psych portraiture, the fun part is self-IDing shared traits. In each case, Zweig writes about them because they're off-the-chart extremes -- and again (I'm thinking of Bernhard's "art of exaggeration" in Extinction) it's exaggeration that always seems so essential for powerful creation, as long as it's hyper-truthful. More true than truth. Zweig's portraits are exaggerated most likely too -- these guys come off as legends, mystics, saints, proto tragic rock stars. But never did I think he was overdoing it, or maybe every once in a while when talking about Nietzsche. But again the thing I'll most remember about this one is that it will lead me to read all of Zweig (particularly his biographies) and Kleist and most of Nietzsche. Holderlin doesn't interest me too much, although I may have enjoyed his section the most. Anyway, a great literary biography -- recommended to anyone frazzled by trying to write etc. Interesting that for so many writers I know it's not a spiritual struggle so much as a struggle for a shred of success, struggles regarding whether or not to self-promote, self-publish, sell-out and write something that (as Bill Hicks says) sucks Satan's cock -- it's refreshing therefore to read about these writers' old-fashioned struggles with art and inspiration


Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

A proto-punk and a proto-metrosexual demand satisfaction from one another because the first macked on the latter's bro's baby mama. The gentry can't really rage against the machine, they're jackdaws, domesticated dogs. Guys in their early twenties have apparently always sort of sucked, albeit in an intellectually sexy way as long as they don't lack confidence. Repudiate, repudiate, repudiate, champion only what's useful, no authority other than oneself. Blame testosterone plus higher education? But then you get older and believe principles are necessary and dress a little better. Interesting structural repetition of crisscrossing "two on two" dynamics throughout: two brothers and two younger dudes; two younger dudes and two sisters; two younger dudes and their parents. Good to see the young toughs either settle down or succumb. Overall, I loved this once Pavel showed up, one of those batchelors described as "queer" and "gay" in an 1861 way that probably helped establish current meanings. Loved the generational conflict, the intellectual argumentation that only required 25 pages to reach a boil, not 500+ like Naptha and Settembrini in The Magic Mountain. Loved the setting, and loved how the two young nihilistic gallants basically meet a hottie for a minute at a fancy dance and then hang at her place for a fortnight and lust after her but for the most part maintain their distance. A very modern novel in some ways -- and not at all in others. Loved the variously liberated ladies, best of all Bazarov's superstitious mah. Loved fatherly love for spirited sons. Generally, other than a few dips I was engaged and visualizing the world and following the explicit ideas throughout. Admired the complexity of the characters but didn't love the characters themselves, and therefore wasn't particularly moved by the requisite youthful struggles with love. I rooted for all of them, really, but more so hoped the novel would maintain its high-qual stability and maybe even take it up a notch or breakout. May have read it more interested in the structure than the story. Definitely a major canonical novel of ideas that seems ahead of its time at times but maybe I could've used some more wisdom and lyricism or a bit that broke from its established patterns? Monotextured but not dull, necessarily. A cute bastard child, a duel, "the jerky trot of shivering horses," a Russian anti-poetic rebel without a cause other than sarcasm and negation with which he'll change the world versus a principled quasi-aristocratic manscaper capable of high feeling and obtuse articulation providing high contrast for less exagerrated, more common characters. Solid but maybe without the peaks expected when hiking the canonical Russian mountain chain? 


Everybody's Irish by Ian Stansel

You know that scene in "North by Northwest" -- Cary Grant confronts the terrifying open space of fields occupied only by an approaching crop duster -- that's what these characters face, sort of, but they do so in crap apartments, in rotten bungalows, in bars, and in one case while bicycling across Illinois while a modern cropduster buzzes nearby. These are solid, well-constructed, carefully crafted stories of the type I would call "classic." Set mostly in Chicago and the infinite cornfields surrounding it, temporally (other than the title story set on St. Patrick's Day, 2011, during the Occupy Movement) they're set in 1967, 1986, before the technological revolution, before cell phones (only one buzzes by my count) and ye olde internet, which adds to the sense that these are classic American stories like those published in the 1980s by Carver, Tobias Woolf, and the Great American Richards (Bausch, Ford, Yates). They fulfill expectations you bring to so-called classic American short stories -- characters come alive after a few pages thanks to plentiful dramatization, there's conflict, restrained dialogue, rising drama, language that's carefully phrased but doesn't call attention to itself, all of it leading to that moment three-quarters through when the story's hard-earned structural solidity gives out and the story seems to squirm as characters experience watershed moments, often involving violence and sex. Adultery, rape, masochism, drugs, drink, suicide, quick covert screwing in kitchens, all sorts of existential spasms expressed physically as characters run from the wild blue yonder of where they've somehow found themselves. A collection filled with megadoses of short-story essence -- heartbreak, horror, hope -- yearning for what's been lost. The Occupy Movement and Pink Floyd's "Money" lightly underscore economic issues suggested herein, but it seems like all characters are down on their luck, out of a job, with dead parents and dead or divorced spouses. But why put yourself through such stuff? Why apply to your face a rectangular device made of paper that ocularly administers yearning to your heart and head? Because there's something about seeing expectations of the traditional story form artfully fulfilled that's simply totally satisfying. We YEARN for solid stories told solidly and, although the characters' desires are for the most part totally dashed (other than a little glimmer of uplift at the end), the reader's yearning is not. It's not as easy as the author (a grad school friend, hence the "potential conflict of interest") makes it seem -- a lot of hard work is required to make these stories seem to effortlessly proceed until they hit those moments where the ground gives out. For a reader, there's nothing like that feeling -- you're cruising along and out of the blue the narrative equivalent of a cropduster appears and legs go watery as you try and fail to stand on the surface of what's suddenly become a bottomless ocean. If you're a fan of that feeling -- that is, if you're a fan of solid stories with built-in vertiginous booby traps -- you've found a favorite new collection. Great stuff. 


The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati

Not sure if it's lame/lazy shorthand to associate a novel with other novels since novels, like I presume all species of animals and plants, from monumental trees to psychoactive weeds, communicate among one another, that is, they talk -- and unlike simple human speech, they do so back and forth through time, which means that this one chats with Kafka's The Castle ("Before the Law," too) at first, and then Mann's The Magic Mountain, all the while nodding at good old Godot and eyeing Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians eavesdropping off on the peripheries of the future. What we have here is unlike a failure to communicate -- there was almost too much associative talk in this reader's head as he read. There's little to no characterization and the story works like a Kafkan super-fable, an open realist allegory, although in this one it's less variable than in Kafka -- this one is about waiting your whole life for an enemy, only to come up against the last enemy of death. It's about life's wide openness closing down thanks to habit and routine and distant hopes. The soldiers are passive -- they don't attack the Northern desert -- but there's no major sense of judgment against Drago for not taking arms against nothingness, which is a plus. Monasterial liberation, the joys of regimented servitude, inevitable regret and, if lucky, acceptance, or at least an ambiguous smile. Total humorlessness and lack of characterization were minuses for me. Also this could use a new translation -- so many times things were clearly off on an idiomatic level or just had to be read a few times over to get the gist due to lack of clarity or lack of commas. Lots of times I reread paragraphs in reverse sentence order after zoning out, realizing I'd tripped over a fuzzy phrase. Regardless, an excellent novel, if not quite up there with Kafka, Mann, Coetzee, in part because the deep generalizing exposition often seems more literary than enlightening? Loved an italicized premonition dream sequence involving little faeries. Loved how it's all sort of an old-fashioned poignancy buildup, with its requisite troughs and peaks, en route to all hope for naught. Otherwise, a great novel that could use a sprucing up. Worth it for fans of humorless 20th-century existentio-suspenseful open allegories. 


The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq

Read this thanks to this bit in Enrique Vila-Matas's Dublinesque:

"He'd published lots of important authors, but only in Julien Gracq's novel The Opposing Shore did he perceive any spirit for the future. In his room in Lyon, over the course of endless hours spent locked away, he devoted himself to a theory of the novel that, based on the lessons apparent to him the moment he opened The Opposing Shore, established five elements he considered essential for the novel of the future. These essential elements were: intertextuality; connection with serious poetry; awareness of a moral landscape in ruins; a slight favoring of style over plot; a view of writing that moves forward like time."
So hard to do this one justice. Like a cross between Kafka and a super-French/semi-evil Updike? To be added to a syllabus featuring Waiting for the Barbarians and The Tartar Steppe. Totally humorless. Purposefully disorientating. Set in a region engaged in something like a cold war for 300 years, in a somnolent, half-alive, yet peaceful state -- the prose induces a similar state in a reader thanks to precise, decadent, sometimes Gothic (sometimes almost purple) prose always worth a second and third read to savor and store a sentence. I'd say that sometimes I felt like I was reading blind, and then I'd have to read back up the page to see where I lost touch with a paragraph. Best when read aloud since the sentences really flow and it's easier to stay alert when reading aloud. A psychedelic existential novel about pushing through and making contact and really feeling alive even if doing so is in no way in one's best interest on a practical level (in the novel's case, it might lead to full-on war) but is essential so life seems alive. Worth going through again one day -- like much of Faulkner, seems like much would clarify on second and third read.


Dances With Snakes by Horacio Castellanos Moya

One of the unevenest nutso entertainments ever. When something's called "uneven" in a workshoppy way I tend to cringe a little since there's a suggestion that things should be "even," edges should be rounded, textures sanded, weirdly jutting Cappadocian fairy castles leveled, every dark scary confounding Mariana Trench stuffed with "characterizing backstory that informs the primary narrative." But in this case the unevenness might be the extremest I've encountered. Artful unevenness, even. Seemed to me like two thin cuts of oddly insipid suspense topped with two slices of bland mediapolitico significance cheese sandwiched between two ridiculously awesome slices of wacky sensationalist fun. I don't want to use the spoilers tool on here, so I'll try not to reveal what happens in the bread parts -- let's just say that the first part reminded me of Kobo Abe's The Box Man and the middle parts and some of the ending reminded me of other Nutso Sensationalist Entertainments Suggestive of Deeper Significance I've read recently, like Torsten Krol's The Dolphin People and Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods. Another thing common to these novels: they're unconcerned with characterization, particularly a character's history (not even traumatic experiences of youth!) or more than the most basic physical description. I also was tempted to associate this with the recent Mark Leyner and Nicholson Baker books but didn't quite feel right about it since the storytelling in this and the other two is key. Anonymous transparent language absolutely serves to move the story forward, but does so somewhat subversively, or in this case, serpentinely, although that's not really an accurate description (the sandwich metaphor is more apt, with surprising bites of spicy jalapeno, mango, wasabi, eel). The uneveness is very much a POV consequence, with the two middle parts in third person, one focused on law enforcement's reaction to what happens in the first 50-page chapter and the other focused on news agency folks trying to get the scoop. A very generous review would interpret things in terms of El Salvador's wartorn history, its media and political organs still on edge and ready to react to unexpected outbursts. The main dude, after all, studied sociology. "This is much more complicated than she thought, and now there are nationwide consequences." A more generous, insightful review might unpack the significance of the Chevrolet in the story and compare it to the latter-mentioned Nissan (I'm pretty sure Japanese car companies are deeply embedded in El Salvador and helped rebuild a lot of destroyed infrastructure etc). But I'd say this sort of thing is suggested, it's in there, but only because the story is set in San Salvador. Like "Lighning Rods," there's a suggestion of how something that starts thanks to reactions to unexpected actions, boredom, curiosity, invention, and/or chance widens in signficance until it reaches the media and political realms, which react as expected. (If Lightning Rods sprang from the stain on Monica Lewinsky's dress, this one derives from OJ's bloody glove.) Further, a really/really generous review might say the middle bits were a dramatized metafictional demonstration of how plot triages inspiration. The other two Moya books I've read are Senselessness and El asco: Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador (the second of which isn't available in English but I translated it and hope to publish it somewhere one day soon), both of which are Bernhardian rants, openly derivative (note the subtitle of El Asco [ie, "Revulsion"]) more or less in form and content (less suicide, more scatological stuff). In this case, I think he's openly derivative of a famously prolific Argentine writer who's become way more famous lately thanks to New Directions. I'm thinking of Cesar Aira's "adelante" (ie, forward!) technique. Date (two months in the fall of 1995, right around the OJ trial when I was traveling solo through Mexico and Central America) and place of composition (a Mexico City neighborhood) appear at the end -- the tell-tale nod to Aira, who's all about noting where and when a novel was composed so elements in the writer's life and the world can be tracked down as influences by those willing to do so. If you're familiar with Aira you know what to expect here: the unexpected. Except in this case Moya sets his comparatively simple language slipping ahead on greased rails and there's not as much metafictional stuff, especially upfront. The four stars for this suggest how much I liked the beginning and end, since I honestly didn't love the middle two sections: in fact, I thought a POV mistake had been made to fill out the book, he should've stayed with the main dude and his ladies, not switched POV for the sake of suspense (ie, we know something the main dude doesn't) and suggestion of sociopoltical/national significance. But since beginning and end were so joyously nutso I awarded audacity an extra star and mostly glossed over the middle bits. Oh man how I want to talk about the final scenes. That oroborosian joke about the stew he makes! Anyway, let's just call this one an eyes-wideningly audacious, sensationalist, uneven entertainment, with traces of sociopolitical/metafictional signficance, that literally climaxes toward the end. Great snakes! (Note: I haven't seen "Snakes on a Plane," thus the failure to mention Samuel L. Jackson's notorious opus.)


And don't forget Equilateral by Ken Kalfus, covered a few months ago.

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