Riff on recent reading

I can’t seem to muster language lately, to make the words do what I want them to do.

I’ve read a number of excellent (or really good) books in the past few months and haven’t been able to write more than the first few sentences of an ostensible “review” before giving up…mostly because those first few sentences usually resemble the kind of boring moaning dithering whining I’m doing now.

There were the two red books by Anne Carson: Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>.  BLCKDGRD sent them to me back in September and I wolfed them down. Autobiography is the superior volume (which is saying something because Red Doc> is grand stuff too). What is it? What is Autobiography of Red? A novel? A poem? A history? An essay? Shall I get bogged down in description? No? Instead, let me be clear:

What I want to think/feel when I read is, How is this possible? How is this allowed?

–which is what I thought/felt reading Autobiography of Red.

From Autobiography of Red:

What else, what else?

Okay, so after the Carson I did manage a review Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantasy novel The Buried Giant—why did a review come out so much easier than anything on Carson, or, say, The Free-Lance Pall Bearers by Ishmael Reed (which I read after the Ishiguro)? Ishiguro’s book was familiar territory, fairly easy to describe—the Carson novel-poems and Reed’s picaresque performance are wholly different animals than the conventional novel.

The Free-Lance Pall Bearers by Ishmael Reed is, I hate to say, dazzling. I know what a lazy term that is, but the novella is just that—it dazzles. It zips. It zings and zounds and skips and scatters, and just when you think you have a handle on its allegorical outlines, it sticks out its tongue and jeers at you. The Free-Lance Pall Bearers is a mirthful and merciless satire on the USA written in a howling vernacular and set in an outhouse. It’s abject, picaresque, volatile, hysterical (in several of the senses of that word). I will relieve myself from summarizing the plot and instead offer this image of its perfect epigraphs:

Okay and so then I read Joanna Walsh’s collection Vertigo. The stories here hum together, evoking consciousness—consciousness’s anxieties, desires, its imaginative consolations. It deserves a full proper review (or just take my word and buy it from The Dorothy Project), but in the meantime, a wonderful passage from “Half the World Over”:

I also read two more by Le Guin: Rocannon’s World (I hope to have an exchange on it with the novelist Adam Novy posted some time in the not-too-distant future), The Dispossessed, which I’ve read three times.

Also: Paul Kirchner’s The Bus 2, which, again, full review in the not-so-far-off-future. But until then, a sample:


Li Ang’s The Lost Garden (Book acquired, 11.20.2015)


Li Ang’s novel The Lost Garden is new in English translation by Sylvia Li-chun Lin with Howard Goldblatt. Publisher Columbia University Press’s blurb:

In this eloquent and atmospheric novel, Li Ang further cements her reputation as one of our most sophisticated contemporary Chinese-language writers. The Lost Garden moves along two parallel lines. In one, we relive the family saga of Zhu Yinghong, whose father, Zhu Zuyan, was a gentry intellectual imprisoned for dissent in the early days of Chiang Kai-shek’s rule. After his release, Zhu Zuyan literally walled himself in his Lotus Garden, which he rebuilt according to his own desires.

Forever under suspicion, Zhu Zuyan indulged as much as he could in circumscribed pleasures, though they drained the family fortune. Eventually everything belonging to the household had to be sold, including the Lotus Garden. The second storyline picks up in modern-day Taipei as Zhu Yinghong meets Lin Xigeng, a real estate tycoon and playboy. Their cat-and-mouse courtship builds against the extravagant banquets and decadent entertainments of Taipei’s wealthy businessmen. Though the two ultimately marry, their high-styled romance dulls over time, forcing them on a quest to rediscover enchantment in the Lotus Garden. An expansive narrative rich with intimate detail, The Lost Garden is a moving portrait of the losses incurred as we struggle to hold on to our passions.

A planet spoiled by the human species (Ursula K. Le Guin)

My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert. . . . We survive there as you do. People are tough! There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do—they never adapt either. We failed as a species, as a social species. We are here now, dealing as equals with other human societies on other worlds, only because of the charity of the Hainish. They came; they brought us help. They built ships and gave them to us, so we could leave our ruined world. They treat us gently, charitably, as the strong man treats the sick one. They are a very strange people, the Hainish; older than any of us; infinitely generous. They are altruists. They are moved by a guilt we don’t even understand, despite all our crimes. They are moved in all they do, I think, by the past, their endless past. Well, we had saved what could be saved, and made a kind of life in the ruins, on Terra, in the only way it could be done: by total centralization. Total control over the use of every acre of land, every scrap of metal, every ounce of fuel. Total rationing, birth control, euthanasia, universal conscription into the labor force. The absolute regimentation of each life toward the goal of racial survival. We had achieved that much, when the Hainish came. They brought us . . . a little more hope. Not very much. We have outlived it. . . . We can only look at this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside. We are capable only of admiring it, and maybe envying it a little. Not very much.

From Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed.

Separating Fighting Swans — Stanley Spencer

Even pain counts (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.Outside the locked room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.

It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.

So, looking back on the last four years, Shevek saw them not as wasted, but as part of the edifice that he and Takver were building with their lives. The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.

From Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed.

Three Books


The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.Sixty-second printing of a mass market paperback Ballantine Books edition (1977). No designer is credited, but the cover painting, titled, The Hills: Hobbiton-across-the-Water, is by Tolkien. All three books were a gift from my aunt.


The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien.Sixtieth printing of a mass market paperback Ballantine Books edition (1978). No designer is credited; cover painting by Tolkien.


The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien. Fifty-sixth printing of a mass market paperback Ballantine Books edition (1977). No designer is credited; cover painting by Tolkien.

Reading Girl with Cat — Leonor Fini


Le Guin, Stapledon, and the Brothers Strugatski (Books acquired, 11.13.2015)


I like to think I know my way around the labyrinthine used bookstore I frequently frequent, but I somehow missed the “Ls” of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section and wound up in Misc S. I was headed to the “Ls” to pick up another Ursula K. Le Guin novel, after having finished Rocannon’s Worlthis afternoon. (I was looking not-so-specifically for The Word for World Is Forest, which my bookshop somehow didn’t have). Anyway, my eye was drawn to the Penguin edition of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (above), which was one of those yeah, I know, I need to read it books. I also saw another one by the Strugatski bros, which I picked up, even though I still haven’t read Hard to Be a God.

I couldn’t resist this hardback edition of Three Hainish Novels, an Ursula K. Le Guin omnibus, which collects Rocannon’s World with Planet of Exile and City of Illusion. I haven’t read the other two, but I’ll get to them after a rereading of The Dispossessed. IMG_0595

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. DallowayI’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.].

I had been warned about Woolf

written, I believe, to impress rather than to relate.

I don’t appreciate her writing and keep coming back for more

I may not be giving it a fair review since I only made it to page 65

pages and pages of surreal metaphors that go on for 10 paragraphs

Woolf had a huge obsession with semi-colons

The book just does not make any sense

I really liked the movie “the Hours”

nonsensical semi-flashbacks

Groundbreaking prose?

I tried, I really did

describing nothing

Written by a lesbian

Kind of like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works

DO read “The Hours”, you will be impressed

I kept losing track of which character was musing about nothing

I suppose Woolf is considered a genius since she was apparently a cavalier writer of her generation

Let us listen to an old farty woman stream her consciousness to us to hear, pointless thoughts that go nowhere

I’m grateful that contemporary writers can at least string together 2 sentences that follow one another in a logical sequence

Lets burn every sentence she ever penned to end all the unneccesary suffering that curious readers have to go through when they first pick up “Mrs. Dalloway.”

My suggestion: just watch The Hours – you’ll get all the beauty and none of the confusion

the person responsible, Virginia Wolf, has been dead for quite some time now

i have no interest in reading about that lifestyle

am stuck in her growling semicolons

slower than a tortoise

ramblings of a lunatic

As bad as Faulkner

So much language

dreadfully boring

run-on sentences

“literary” drivel

terribly written

so many words

and never getting to a plot

Stream of conscience you say?

I normally enjoy stream of consciousness

The narrative reads like the inner thoughts of a sugar crazed autistic kid with ADD in the middle of a carnival

everyone i know who likes this book only does so because he or she was told by some professor that it’s supposed to be good and can provide no evidence to confirm it

This book certainly shows the depravity of man and a self-centered life and the meaningless found amongst those who think of none but themselves.

The absence of spacing to differentiate between each character’s thought process makes for unnecessary confusion

I really liked the idea of the story taking place over the course of one day


meandering and repetetive

will suffice as kindling

The party! The party!

VW was mentally-ill


put me off

definitley not a fun read

pretty gross hair and stuff on it/ in it

I had had to read it, or was supposed to

haven’t been able to get past the first chapter

lovely idea, virginia and i applaud you for your creativity

I felt like I was reading some writing student’s homework assignment

The Hours is better, despite its inspiration

this story line is too depressing for me

Descriptions were beaten to death

Not one thing uplifting

I am an avid reader!

the book failed


Ezra Pound wondered which should be sovereign, the verb or the noun (William H. Gass)

It is too easy—the name game—in this case.

Christened “Pound, Ezra Loomis.” If used as a verb, “pound” means to beat. If used as a noun, “pound” signifies a unit of weight, a measure of money, pressure of air, or physical force. From time to time, apropos poetry, Pound wondered which should be sovereign, the verb or the noun, and concluded, if his practice may be entered as evidence, that the verb was most noticed when knocked off the sentence like a phallus from a kouros—“Spiretop alevel the well curb”—and when effects were hammered back into their causes with naillike hyphens—“Seal sport in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash”—hence into a compaction like a headache … splitting.

As location, a pound sequesters sick animals and strays. “Places of confinement for lawbreakers” is the definition that immediately precedes Pound’s name in The American Heritage Dictionary, after which we encounter the listing for “pound of flesh” and read of “a debt harshly insisted upon.” Certainly a pound is a large bite by any standard, yet it resembles, in being Shylock’s payment, the neschek of the Jews: money for the rent of money; not a gnaw but, in the way it feels coming due, not a nibble either. It is a tax on use, this thinning of the dime, as if money would otherwise be free of entropy; although to put the bite on someone has come to mean to beg for a loan, possibly as a return of favor, where the request is clearly not intended to invite the interest of the loan’s own teeth. So one meaning of “pound” has a relative called “blood money.” It suggests racial forfeiture.

On the other hand, the pound of flesh we subtract from the flank of a steer may increase our girth and relieve many a primordial anxiety. We call it “putting our money to work.” Wear and repair, profit or loss, depends upon your point of view, the angle of the bank and the direction of the bounce. Our poet depended without protest, for much of his life, upon funds supplied by the family of his wife.

The first few paragraphs of William H. Gass’s essay “Ezra Pound.” Collected in Finding a Form.

Three Books


Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed. 1978 mass market paperback by Bard Books, a division of Avon Books. No designer or illustrator credited. I picked this copy up after giving away the edition I read this summer. An amazing novel.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down by Ishmael Reed. 1977 mass market paperback by Bard Books, a division of Avon Books. No designer or illustrator credited—but the cover illustration seems to be signed “Andrew Rhodes.” Haven’t read this one yet.IMG_0549The Free-Lance Pallbearers by Ishmael Reed. 1969 mass market paperback by Bantam Books. No designer or illustrator credited. I finished this last week—a slim, strange, dazzling work.