2021 Reading Log

1. The Crying of Lot 49 (1965, Thomas Pynchon): 5/1/21-6/7/21
The structure threw me off, and while I’m not attributing my repeated failed attempts to begin reading this book to anything except my current living situation, it only became more inexplicable the further I read. The central enigma of the muted post horn and the Tristero only truly emerges around the halfway mark, and a great deal of this is spent in the weeds, the minutiae — not only Pynchon’s numerous historical and literary inventions, but the actual interactions. Indeed, that totally remarkable aspect will stick with me as much as the frightful paranoia that Oedipa eventually undergoes, and the two are inextricably intertwined after a certain point, especially in that nocturnal series of encounters in San Francisco, so utterly dreamlike, yet initially launched into with such a sudden lurch. The irresolution was maybe expected after a certain point, but the way it’s carried out, especially after maybe an overabundance of syntactical curlicues, is unbelievably impactful.

2020 Reading Log

1. Zama (1956, Antonio Di Benedetto): 11/19/19-2/8/20 (on-off):
Comparing this with the film is practically unavoidable, seeing as how close to my mind Martel’s work has been during the past few end-of-decade obsessed months, whether while reading this book or not. But what Di Benedetto seems to emphasis above all else is, if not strictly atmosphere in the way that the film would have it, than the impossibility of fully comprehending or understanding it. The odd slips in quotidian time, the overwhelming horniness that possesses Zama, the way in which characters fade in and out of focus, all of this feels explicitly designed to displace the reader, to inhabit the total uncertainty that the main character lives in. All of this is tremendously successful, and the three-part structure serves to highlight the writer’s dexterity: when looked at in pure narrative terms, the three couldn’t be more removed, and yet when placed side-by-side and examined minutely, they proceed with the same purpose.

2. Black Wings Has My Angel (1953, Elliott Chaze): 2/9/20-3/14/20:
Like the best films noir, Black Wings Has My Angel rests upon its strange, resigned fatalism, all in the backwards glance of a man condemned to his vague yet inescapable fate. At the same time, it never feels so irreducibly simple: the details are so exacting that they imprint themselves in the reader’s head; Virginia is a combination of femme fatale tropes that becomes an impossible being, coquettish and proper one moment and ruthless the next; the past of Tim Sunblade/Kenneth is ironclad and thus makes it feel as though anything is possible for him. The result is something that both valorizes and warns against crime, a beautiful set of contradictions that adds up to something even greater than the sum of its parts; in other words, it has the ideal, horrible American spirit at every moment.

2019 Reading Log

1. Augustus (1972, John Williams): 12/23/18-4/21/19 (on-off)
In a certain sense I don’t know if I’m entirely fit to form any coherent thoughts on this monumental work, considering my prolonged and very scattered engagement with it. But it seems fitting, in a certain way: it is a book of transience, looking backwards at memories only mostly remembered, even as those who bear witness to history pass before their time. The years pass, only highlighted truly by the denotations in the headings, and the voices thin one by one until the subject himself speaks, and his own voice is as distinguished yet as fundamentally poetic as the rest. A fitting final work, then, encompassing a life and a nation with unimaginable grace.

2. The Savage Detectives (1998, Roberto Bolaño): 4/22/19-6/23/19
It’s an understatement to say that this permeated and swirled around in my consciousness for the two months I read it, and probably will for a good long while after. Finishing it at around the same time as my experience with La Flor, a work of comparable scope and artistic lineage, if not ultimate intention, does certainly color it, but in many ways this colossal work seems even more mysterious than when I first started it. The structure certainly points to a fundamental aimlessness, when a person becomes further unmoored from an already rootless existence, as the regimented structure of the days disappear and a testimony can be split into many parts and take place over the course of a single night or decades. In a sense, this almost combines the intentions of the previous two books I’ve read (Invisible Cities and Augustus) and transforms them, anchoring itself in a time, space, and movement simultaneously real and imaginary. But the anxieties, the raucousness, the desperation are all too real; what truly punctures is not just the two (or three) lost souls at its center, but the fates of so many characters that feel just as key as the rest. Whether ending up dead or cocooned within a life far less radical (for good or ill), no one can escape the progression of time, the march of the decades. When your goal is unexpectedly fulfilled with little fanfare, where can you go, what can you do?

3. Three to Kill (1976, Jean-Patrick Manchette): 6/23/19-6/24/19
Didn’t necessarily expect the political edge to this, which becomes an inflection through the course of the narrative but rears its head at unexpected moments, but it pairs perfectly with the ruthless cool of this, the loving detail given to the process by which men engage in vicious exchanges. Like many of the great artists, and like his central character, Manchette’s facility with time is extremely adaptable, and his chapter structure bears this out: the longest chapters both feature spans of long months and the course of a night, and sometimes they last less than two pages, all the better to convey the clipped yet melodic nature of his prose. Calling this bloodless wouldn’t be correct, but a steeliness emanates off of every sentence, a total confidence that thrills.

4. Transit (1944, Anna Seghers): 6/25/19-8/8/19
Can’t help but ultimately compare this to Christian Petzold’s masterful film, which pares down and refines the surprising multitude of elements to this sobering and deeply involved book. Its greatness is of a sort very different (and not quite as appealing) from the film, delving deep into its nameless protagonist’s mindset, which veers from callous to obsessed in a manner that ultimately feels consistent and deeply revealing of the very whims that govern the murmuring masses whose fates are decided by scraps of paper. The emotions may be somewhat more tricky to get into, particularly in terms of the circling nature of this book, with Seghers seeming as interested in the disparate side characters as in her central dynamics, but as little moments emerge, as more and more is spoken and unspoken, something of no small power does ultimately emerge.

5. Cathedral (1983, Raymond Carver): 8/9/19-8/17/19
Can’t speak to how this compares to the average short story collection, but there’s such an immense unity to these, each existing in their own orbit but sharing a careful and rigorous attention to suburban anxieties. Without sacrificing the overall air of memory and recollection, Carver’s mode always shifts, especially in when he chooses when to narrate from his main character’s point of view or not; “A Small, Good Thing” is the natural pinnacle and centerpiece of this, fluidly shifting between husband and wife before reorienting suddenly in the last few pages. And of course, the title story is a perfect capper, an immense tribute to art and empathy as prickly and complex as it is moving.

6. The Unknown Masterpiece (1831, Honoré de Balzac): 8/18/19-9/6/19
Though the title story is the greater of the two, the significant presence of “Gambara”, both physically (taking up two-thirds of the NYRB book) and aesthetically, certainly shouldn’t be discounted. The two are both concerned with the undoing or misapprehension of genius, and in a way act as foils for each other. Both share in common what appears to be Balzac’s penchant for long monologues, frequently filled with extensive technical discussions of art, and the actual narratives are relatively brief. However, “The Unknown Masterpiece” feels far more deliberately spare in a way that suits it: taking place over no more than three days (though perhaps separated by a longer span), only involving a few characters, and surrounding a single deliberately withheld artwork; furthermore, all of these characters are (as per the introduction) master painters in their own right at different stages in their careers, and thus share a certain commonality. On the other hand, “Gambara” is almost maximal in comparison; the cast of characters is only slightly larger, but the eponymous character is deliberately isolated, with Balzac frequently negotiating a strange balance in depicting him that never fully coheres, and the logorrheic stretches of musical discourse and description both act as a brilliant replication of time and an only partially successful substitute for the actual experience of listening. Both are perhaps overly invested in a sense of aesthetic purity, but in a way this is fitting; without it, the notion of mastery found and lost would be even harder to evoke.

7. The Mad and the Bad (1972, Jean-Patrick Manchette): 9/7/19-9/14/19
Moves incredibly easily from the carefully manicured and managed world of comfortable living — punctuated by Peter’s violent outburst — to stretches of ultraviolence. Like in Three to Kill, Manchette emphasizes the transformation of the main character into something close to a hardened killer, but it’s complicated here by her past in the asylum, which makes her a less easily readable character (largely) for the better. It seems only fitting that a department store and a labyrinth complete with a room for a giant form the spaces for the grand setpieces of this book: the specter of capitalism and greed looms over this, something which the ending note only throws into stark, gleefully cynical relief.

8. Notes on the Cinematograph (1975, Robert Bresson): 9/15/19
Though the specific qualities that make this such a staggering work are by no means absent from the realm of film writing or criticism, there’s something that feels firmly literary about Bresson’s extensive (yet slim) series of aphorisms. Like in his films, there exists a delicate balance between words, between phrases (and the ideas they suggest), between the arrangement of phrases that gives this its power, continually emphasizing his central filmmaking edicts while suggesting much more. Unnamed films, many composers and thinkers, and the occasional direct command tantalize and set the mind ablaze, all while the central integrity of the book remains steadfast. Amazing because of its stark brevity, not in spite of it.

9. A Signal Victory (1960, David Stacton): 9/16/19-11/14/19
There’s almost an alchemical relationship between Stacton’s prose and his narrative/thematic concerns, relating both deep philosophical ruminations and an intimate but unpredictably shifting approach to the massive civilization-wide change through a quietly despairing lens. The emphasis is above all on Guerrero, who remains a largely stoic figure throughout, but his perspective never feels overtly tethered: it moves lightly to and from his hero, setting out to understand friend and foe alike, seemingly staying close to the historical fact while never shortchanging or discounting the Mayan perspective. Stacton possesses such a deep level of respect and love for the Spanish defector, recognizing all of his newfound conviction as emblematic of something even grander than a lost way of life: the drive to find a home, to find one’s place in the world, and the devastation that comes with that world’s destruction. Each leap in time, each decisive act carries its own strange and beautiful charge.

10. The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962, Agatha Christie): 11/15/19-11/19/19
It’s been a long while since I’ve read a true whodunit, but I feel like that only accounts for a small part of my strong reaction to the reveal, which is truly masterful and more than a little moving. Granted, there are some slightly niggling elements: the Development, Miss Knight, all of which add a certain atmosphere to St. Mary Mead that in turn butts up against the (much more pleasurable) world of film that this largely engages with. But the procedure’s the thing, and Christie provides it in spades, constantly circling with each repeated question (conveyed not through Miss Marple but through Chief-Inspector Craddock), in a way that ultimately proves to be the key: it’s all about perception and psychology, and it’s conveyed in clear and firm terms, rooted in actions, which prove to be quite pleasing.

2018 Reading Log

1. Stoner (1965, John Williams): 7/29-8/2

Difficult to accurately judge just how much this is colored by my absurd absence from reading for these past few years, but this is almost impossibly expansive and moving, covering such an expanse of time (almost cradle-to-grave) in both expanses and skips. Williams’s sense of conveying the almost compartmentalized nature of Stoner’s existence is so cannily divided into focusing on different characters and the events that transpire with them, and yet his approach can’t be reduced to as simple a statement as that. Characters are introduced and then reappear in a startling different context – Finch rather unexpectedly becomes perhaps the fifth most important character, Katharine is introduced in an almost curt manner – and throughout it is apparent that all involved in Stoner’s life are intertwined, perhaps in the most subconscious and buried ways. Stoner’s parents are (to the best of my recollection) not mentioned past the halfway point, and yet the indelible impression that their decaying, dirt-caked lives made on their son and the reader endures. And through it all, art is couched as both salvation and damnation, altering Stoner’s life (for better and worse) at every turn, defining his way of existence while ensuring its continued state of quiet desperation. Stoner is at once devastating and fulfilling, tracking the development and sustained intellect of a singular mindset, observing as it ebbs and flows according to the rhythms of a life that is at once ordinary and extraordinary. Nothing short of revelatory.

2. Tropic Moon (1933, Georges Simenon): 8/8-8/23

Perhaps the most destabilizing element of Tropic Moon is Simenon’s preference for plunging the reader in media res at the start of more or less every chapter, then doubling back to give some context (necessary or not). This happens with regularity, true, but it never fails to dole out a few jolts. Indeed, this tendency is emblematic of the whole book’s careful, more than a little horrifying approach, taking as a given its sweltering setting and organizing an examination of both milieu and intruder. What most stuns is that Timar’s (and Adèle’s, and Bouillox’s) character never truly changes past his first introduction; rather, he deepens and becomes more complex as the heat forces his character to evolve to the atmosphere – that is, until he can’t bear it anymore. He is no coaster; where others survive, he falls.

3. Invisible Cities (1972, Italo Calvino): 9/7; 11/26-12/22
Invoked Hong’s “infinite worlds possible” maxim when raving about this magnificent book, and the comparison isn’t entirely inapposite: there is a certain quality that Calvino evokes here, founded upon the notion that each of this cities could all be real or all be false, all projections of Marco Polo’s native Venice or Kublai Khan’s fantasies about his empire or some combination or non-combination of the two, and it’s entirely to his credit that nothing is resolved. Like the men at its center, there is neither resolution nor total denial, instead a complete state of odd, often beautiful contentment and continual discovery. Invisible Cities‘s final exhortation is as close to a definitive, concrete statement as the book comes, yet it explicitly prescribes searching — a continual, never totally completable task — as the solution, which Calvino does with endless variation and complexity, while laying out his ideas for all to see.