Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

Books

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Ran out of time this week before I could write about anything I’ve been reading. So a quick riff, from top to bottom, in the pic above:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

I’ve been reading this at night with my seven-year-old daughter. I’ve read it maybe a thousand times now. Lewis is not the best prose stylist, but he fuses together bits of pagan and Christian myth better than the best.

On the iPad:

The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq

My least-favorite Houellebecq so far—has some wonderful rants at times, but Houellebecq keeps embedding these terrible pop culture references (following his hero Bret Easton Ellis’s lead?) that usually dull the edge he’s been sharpening. And the narrator’s spite at this point is almost unbearable—reading it makes me feel like Gandalfdore drinking that poisonous potion in Harry Potter and the League of Bad Mentorsjust sucking down venom.

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Great stuff. A little over two-thirds finished. Wrote about is some here.

Lanark, Alasdair Gray

I might regret that I never wrote a Big Fat Review of Lanark, Gray’s bizarre cult novel. The book is a weird chimera: It starts as a weird sci-fi/fantasy trip—closer to Kafka’s The Castle than genre-conventional fare though, to be clear. Then it shifts into this modernist Künstlerroman that seems to want to be a Scottish answer to Joyce’s Portrait. Then there’s a short story inserted in the middle, a return to the dystopian fantasy (heavy streaks of Logan’s Run and Zardoz and Soylent Green—very ’70s!), and, right before its (purposefully) dissatisfying conclusion, an essay by a version of the author, who defensively critiques his novel for characters and readers alike. Gray wants to have written the Great Scottish Epic. I’m not sure if he did, but Lanark has moments that are better than anything I’ve read all year—even if the end result doesn’t hang together so well.

The Bowling Alley on the Tiber, Michelangelo Antonioni

Sketches and figments that Antonioni never turned into films. Not sure if he intended to.

Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor

Good lord.

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather

There’s a tendency in American fiction to posit the American Dream as a masculine escapist fantasy. This version of the Dream is perhaps best expressed in the last lines of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck declares: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” Always more territory, always more space outside of the (maternal) civilizing body. Cather answers to that version of the Dream in her character Alexandra Bergson, who cultivates the land and claims her own agency through commerce and agriculture.

The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa, translated by Dominic Siracusa

What a strange and wonderful book! I wrote about it here. Confounding.

The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño

Okay, so I wrote about the first section in detail here. More or less finished it. Bolaño’s best poems are basically prose (that’s not a knock).

Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews

Wrote about it a bit here; will write more when I finish. Makes me want to reread Bolaño (although I almost always want to reread Bolaño).

(In a Sense) Lost & Found, Roman Muradov

The plot of Muradov’s debut graphic novel floats like a dream-fog in surreal, rich art as the ludic dialogue refuses to direct the reader to a stable referent. Great stuff.

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The difficulty of writing about sex (Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook)

Literature

Sex. The difficulty of writing about sex, for women, is that sex is best when not thought about, not analysed. Women deliberately choose not to think about technical sex. They get irritable when men talk technically, it’s out of self-preservation: they want to preserve the spontaneous emotion that is essential for their satisfaction.

Sex is essentially emotional for women. How many times has that been written? And yet there’s always a point even with the most perceptive and intelligent man, when a woman looks at him across a gulf: he hasn’t understood; she suddenly feels alone; hastens to forget the moment, because if she doesn’t she would have to think. Julia, myself and Bob sitting in her kitchen gossiping. Bob telling a story about the breakup of a marriage. He says: ‘The trouble was sex. Poor bastard, he’s got a prick the size of a needle.’ Julia: ‘I always thought she didn’t love him.’ Bob, thinking she hadn’t heard”
“heard: ‘No, it’s always worried him stiff, he’s just got a small one.’ Julia: ‘But she never did love him, anyone could see that just by looking at them together.’ Bob, a bit impatient now: ‘It’s not their fault, poor idiots, nature was against the whole thing from the start.’ Julia: ‘Of course it’s her fault. She should never have married him if she didn’t love him.’ Bob, irritated because of her stupidity, begins a long technical explanation, while she looks at me, sighs, smiles, and shrugs. A few minutes later, as he persists, she cuts him off short with a bad-tempered joke, won’t let him go on.

From Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, which I was inspired to read after this essay by K. Thomas Khanh (aka @proustitute).

I started reading Lessing’s book after finishing Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark. Gray’s novel was published in 1981 nineteen years after The Golden Notebook, but he was writing it for at least three decades before its publication, and the structural features of the two books are similar: both novels self-deconstruct, self-criticize, and rely on fragmentation and juxtaposition to evoke their themes. The themes are fairly different, I suppose, although not really. It’s all sex and death, yes?

Moby-Dick (Alasdair Gray’s Lanark)

Books, Literature

It is a relief to turn to the honest American book about the whale. A captain wants to kill it because the last time he tried to do that it bit off his leg while escaping. He embarks with a cosmopolitan crew who don’t like home life and prefer this way of earning money. They are brave, skilful and obedient, they chase the whale round the world and get themselves all drowned together: all but the storyteller. He describes the world flowing on as if they had never existed. There are no women or children in this book, apart from a little black boy whom they accidentally drive mad.

From Alasdair Gray’s unwieldy cult classic Lanark. In this particular episode, a version of the author of the novel Lanark itself (a conjurer-king, not named Gray) discusses and describes the great national epics; he chooses Moby-Dick as the American epic. There is no listing of a Scottish national epic; presumably Gray intends his novel to fill that slot.

Complaint to God (Alasdair Gray’s Lanark)

Books, Literature

The more he worked the more the furious figure of God kept popping in and having to be removed: God driving out Adam and Eve for learning to tell right from wrong, God preferring meat to vegetables and making the first planter hate the first herdsman, God wiping the slate of the world clean with water and leaving only enough numbers to start multiplying again, God fouling up language to prevent the united nations reaching him at Babel, God telling a people to invade, exterminate and enslave for him, then letting other people do the same back. Disaster followed disaster to the horizon until Thaw wanted to block it with the hill and gibbet where God, sick to death of his own violent nature, tried to let divine mercy into the world by getting hung as the criminal he was. It was comical to think he achieved that by telling folk to love and not hurt each other. Thaw groaned aloud and said, “I don’t enjoy hounding you like this, but I refuse to gloss the facts. I admire most of your work. I don’t even resent the ice ages, even if they did make my ancestors carnivorous. I’m astonished by your way of leading fertility into disaster, then repairing the disaster with more fertility. If you were a busy dung beetle pushing the sun above the skyline, if you had the head of a hawk or the horns and legs of a goat I would understand and sympathize. If you headed a squabbling committee of Greek departmental chiefs I would sympathize. But your book claims you are a man, the one perfect man of whom we are imperfect copies. And then you have the bad taste to put yourself in it. Only the miracle of my genius stops me feeling depressed about this, and even so my brushes are clogged by theology, that bastard of the sciences. Let me remember that a painting, before it is anything else, is a surface on which colours are arranged in a certain order.

From Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark.

Our best paintings look like screams of pain (Alasdair Gray’s Lanark)

Books, Literature

“There was once a building boom,” said Thaw, growing excited, “In north Italy. The local governments and bankers of three or four towns, towns the size of Paisley, put so much wealth and thought into decorating public buildings that half Europe’s greatest painters were bred there in a single century. These bosses weren’t unselfish men, no, no. They knew they could only win votes and stay popular by giving spare wealth to their neighbours in the form of fine streets, halls, towers and cathedrals. So the towns became beautiful and famous and have been a joy to visit ever since. But today our bosses don’t live among the folk they employ. They invest surplus profits in scientific research. Public buildings have became straight engineering jobs, our cities get uglier and uglier and our best paintings look like screams of pain. No wonder! The few who buy them, buy them like diamonds or rare postage stamps, as a form of non-taxable banking.”

From Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark.

The poisonous radiations which had killed most of his contemporaries had, by a fluke, given him eternal youth (Alasdair Gray)

Literature

Apparent life was a succession of dull habits in which he did what was asked automatically, only resenting demands to show interest. His energy had withdrawn into imaginary worlds and he had none to waste on reality.

A small fertile land lay hidden in a crater made by an atomic explosion. Thaw was Prime Minister of it. He lived in an old mansion among lawns and clumps of forest on the shore of a loch ornamented with islands. The mansion was spacious, dim and peaceful. The halls were hung with his paintings, the library full of his novels and poems, there were studios and laboratories where the best minds of the day worked whenever they cared to visit him. Outside the sun was warm, bees hummed among flowers and fountains, the season was midway between summer and autumn when the trees showed their matured green and only the maples were crimson. Political work took little of his time, for the people of that country had such confidence in him that he had only to suggest a reform for it to be practised. Indeed, his main problem was to keep the land democratic, for he would have been crowned king long before if his socialist principles had not forbidden it. He looked young for a Prime Minister, being a boy in early adolescence; at the same time he had ruled that land for centuries. He was a survivor of the third world war. The poisonous radiations which had killed most of his contemporaries had, by a fluke, given him eternal youth. In two or three centuries of wandering about the shattered earth he had become leader of a small group of people who had come to trust his gentleness and wisdom. He had brought them to the crater, protected by its walls from the envy of unhappier lands, to build a republic where nobody was sick, poor or forced to live by work they hated. Unluckily his country was surrounded by barbaric lands ruled by queens and tyrants who kept plotting to conquer it and were only kept out by his courage and ingenuity. As a result he was often involved in battles, rescues, escapes, fights with monsters in the middle of arenas, and triumphal processions of shocking vulgarity which he only took part in to avoid hurting the feelings of the queens and princesses whose lives and countries he had saved. When these adventures were over he invited the main characters home to stay with him, and since he annexed the plot of every book and film which impressed him the house by the loch was always crowded with the celebrities of many different races, nations and historical phases. In the simplicity of his spacious rooms they were amazed by the quiet friendliness of a way of life more civilized than their own, and they learned the true duties of a ruler by seeing him spend an afternoon drawing the plans of a new reservoir or university. The women guests usually fell in love with him, though some of the more barbaric came to hate him for his friendly indifference, an indifference which clothed a deep shyness. He could only feel near to women when rescuing them, and often envied the villains who could humiliate or torture them. His position made it impossible to imagine doing such things himself. Yet when walking home from school or public library, these adventures filled his head and chest with such intoxicating emotions that he had to run hard to be relieved of them and often found he had come through several streets without remembering anything of the people, houses or traffic.

His other imaginary world was enjoyed in the genitals. It was a secret gold mine in Arizona which a gang of bandits worked by slave labour. Thaw was bandit chief and spent his time inventing and practising tortures for the slaves. The mine got outside stimulus, not from the shelves of the library but, cryptically, from American comics. He never bought these, and had courage to look at their enticing covers only when the shop contained something else he could pretend to examine, but he sometimes borrowed one at school and in the privacy of the back bedroom copied out pictures of men being whipped and branded. He kept these pictures between pages of Carlyle’s French Revolution, a book no one else was likely to open.

From Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark.

 

Flann O’Brien and Alasdair Gray (Books Acquired, 5.12.2012)

Books, Literature, Writers

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Picked up two more by Flann O’Brien after enjoying The Third Policeman so very much; thanks again to the reader suggestions on that one. The Poor Mouth has pictures:

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I was looking for Alasdair Gray’s first novel Lanark (no dice), but picked up 1982 Janine read the back and immediately knew I had to have it.

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I picked up Poor Things just to riffle a bit, and again, very intrigued. Also, another book with illustrations. Here’s one:

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And, as I shot these outside in the cheap showiness of nature, here’s a picture of a large plant’s tumescent bloom, because hey why not:

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