Reviews, riffs, etc. of June-July, 2016 (and an unrelated pig)

I read a lot of great books over the past few months and failed to write proper reviews for some of them, including two by Stanley Elkin—The Franchiser and The Dick Gibson Showa double feature of two novellas by W.D. Clarke called White Mythology, and Marketa Lazarova by Vladislav Vančura. But I did riff on other books.

One of the best books I’ve read in ages is Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novella Quiet Creature on the Corner (new in English translation (by Adam Morris) from Two Lines Press). I reviewed the book, but also noted

The book is probably best read without any kind of foregrounding or forewarning.

Forewarning (and enthusiastic endorsement): Quiet Creature on the Corner is a nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal, picaresque read, a mysterious prose-poem that resists allegorical interpretation. I read it and then I read it again. It’s a puzzle. I enjoyed it tremendously.


I also wrote about the books I’ve started the most times without ever finishing, asking readers in turn what books they’ve started the most times without finishing. 


Frequent answers (both on the blog, on Twitter, and via email) included lots of “big” books, especially Gravity’s RainbowWar and PeaceMoby-Dick, and Infinite Jest. I was also surprised at how many readers cited Dostoevksy’s novel The Idiot, a book I’ve started at least four times without success.

Readers also told me that I needed to stick it out with The Charterhouse of Parma, which I did. I wrote about French Stendhal’s “Italian” novel here and here. Short version: Parts were great but the novel was often exhausting—Charterhouse is a novel about boredom that is frequently boring. But the fault is mine.

Another French novel I got bored with was Hell, Henri Barbusse’s 1908 novel of voyeurism (I read (and often just skimmed, to be honest) 1966 English translation by Robert Baldick. (As an aside, I think my boredom and comprehension of the novel made it easy to write about—whereas I sometimes have difficulty writing about a novel that I find perplexing and which I feel a passion for, like Vančura’s Marketa Lazarova).

I was very passionate about an Italian “Italian” novel (or set of novels, I suppose), Elena Ferrante’s so-called Neapolitan Novels. I wrote about Ferrante’s powers of abjection, stating—

From the earliest pages of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante crafts a world—a brutal neighborhood in Naples—which seems real, full, squirming with dirty bloody life. The novel also reminded me of 2666, although I couldn’t figure out why at first (my friend had not suggested a connection). A simple answer is that both novels are propulsive, addictive, impossibly rich, and evocative of specific and real worlds, real worlds anchored in dreams and nightmares.

But it’s also the horror. Ferrante, like Bolaño, captures the horrific violence under the veneer of civilization. While My Brilliant Friend and its three “sequels” (they are one novel, to be sure) undertake to show the joys and triumphs and sadnesses of a life (and more than one life), they also reverberate with the sinister specter of abjection—the abjection of violence, of history, and of the body itself. The novels are messy, bloody, and tangled, their plot trajectories belying conventional expectations (in the same way that the novels’ awful covers belie their internal excellence—kitschy romantic smears glossing over tumult).

I’m glad I finished the quartet.

As a sort of sequel or answer or rejoinder or whatever to my question posing post about books I’ve attempted the most without ever finishing, I wrote about the novels I’m always dipping into without ever hoping to really finish.


I also recycled two older posts: A thing I wrote about The BFG as a love letter Dahl wrote to his deceased daughter (recycled for the Spielberg film) and a review of Hemingway’s overlooked novel of doomed polyamory, The Garden of Eden (recycled for the man’s birthday).

I also spent a fun Friday afternoon browsing old sci-fi covers.

Also: Derek Pyle, of Waywords and Meansigns,  interviewed novelist Brian Hall about a bunch of stuff, including his work adapting Finnegans Wake, a novel on my “I probably will never really read this all the way through, but…” list.

Promised pig: Jamie Wyeth’s Winter Pig, 1975–


Five Great Recent Comedies, All Underappreciated, All Worth Watching

Perhaps no comedy best exemplifies “the little film that could” syndrome as does Mike Judge’s Office Space. Although Office Space died in the theaters, this movie about three fed up cubicle drones quickly regained a second life as a cult film classic before eventually becoming a quotable cultural touchstone on par with Caddyshack. Judge’s next film Idiocracy followed the same pattern, and while it’s not likely to ever hold the same prestige as Office Space, movies like Super Troopers and Wet Hot American Summer continue to show us that a film can die at the box office but have a second life as a cult favorite. We present to you five future classic comedies, all underappreciated, all worth watching.

1. Beerfest (2006)

Drunken Lizard’s Beerfest details the experiences of two brothers and their friends who travel to Germany to enter an underground beer-drinking competition in order to restore both familial and patriotic glory. Despite the silly premise, the movie is nonetheless an epic adventure story that dutifully moves through each phase of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. It’s also, of course, very, very funny.

2. Hot Rod (2007)

Hot Rod was in the theaters for about five minutes last year and was unfairly criticized for being derivative of every other sports spoof ever made. Sure, Andy Samberg was following a model that anyone who’s ever seen a Will Ferrell comedy will be familiar with, but it’s the small touches, the strange little nuances that make the delicious dumbness of Rod Kimble’s sorry attempts at dare-devilry so funny. Ian McShane (Deadwood‘s Swedgin) is fantastic as the malevolent stepfather and Chris Parnell is too fucking funny in his bit part.

3. I Think I Love My Wife (2007)

Everyone knows that Chris Rock is hilarious, so why did no one go see I Think I Love My Wife? Well, it could be that the story of an African-American executive who feels constricted by his upper-middle class lifestyle, kids, wife, etc. and daydreams of having sex with lots and lots of other women simply couldn’t find it’s niche; I Think I Love My Wife is a cult film with no cult. In an interview with the AV Club last year, co-writer Louis CK says that he warned director/writer/star that the film would be a mistake to make. I think he’s wrong. Although the film is very much a monoglossic, one-voice escapade–this is Rock’s tale, of course–that voice is funny and insightful, and often says things that most married men are apt to feel on a daily basis (but not me, honey!)

4. Crank (2006)

Crank should be taught in film classes. In the most wonderfully stupid plot imaginable, professional assassin Jason Statham (who’s made a career out of these kinds of roles, it seems) is injected with a lethal poison. Here’s the twist: if his heart rate drops too low, he’ll die! For the next 90 minutes, he engages in every kind of adrenaline-jumping escapade imaginable including drinking lots of Red Bull, snorting mounds of cocaine, driving really, really fast, and, uh, fighting all the time. Lots and lots of fighting. In one memorable scene, Statham publicly schtups his annoying girlfriend while a busload of Japanese tourists cheers him on. Why this film didn’t win an Oscar, I’ll never understand.

5. Southland Tales (2006)

I’ve already reviewed Southland Tales but it belongs on this list. For all its many, many faults, Richard Kelly’s sprawling opus is a weird, sardonic mess of smart satire and goonish toilet humor, the kind of movie that seems to be mocking both itself as well as its audience at every turn. Not everyone will get this movie, but there are some of you out there who will love it even as it bewilders you.