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Books

It’s been months since I posted last. Recently I started a new job. I haven’t written much (or read much) in a long time because I’m always exhausted at the moment. Everything’s a bit overwhelming right now and I really hope that changes soon (it will). I read some wonderful books while I was away and while I don’t have the time to give them the attention they deserve (in the past I might have dedicated a whole post to some of the books listed here) I wanted to write a few brief words on the words I read on the other side of the world.

books

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
The visceral realists are a poetry movement consisting of young idealistic junkie romantics. They are tough and rough yet full of heart and  The journey of Arturo Belano (that’s Bolaño himself) and Ulisses Lima (Bolaño’s friend and fellow poet José Alfredo Zendejas Pineda) as they escape Mexico City to locate a mysterious and elusive poet in the Sonoran desert. The majority of the book consists of interviews and testimonies from dozens of people from Mexico, South America, Europe and beyond, people who saw Belano and Lima and the visceral realists pass through their lives in some vague and spectral capacity. It’s a book about love, the idea and the ideals of love, about the intensity of youth and its brevity, life and its harsh and sad realities, the people who wander into your path, those who settle, those who die, those who change and those who can’t, those who are remembered and those who are forgotten, fond memories and past lovers lost and found. It’s a powerful book. A road trip that spans twenty years, The Savage Detectives is funny, melancholic, beautiful.

Of all the islands he’d visited, two stood out. The island of the past, he said, where the only time was past time and the inhabitants were bored and more or less happy, but where the weight of illusion was so great that the island sank a little deeper into the river every day. And the island of the future, where the only time was the future, and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such strivers, said Ulises, that they were likely to end up devouring one another.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
A heartwarming little book that champions the human condition. On the surface it may appear simplistic and humdrum but Steinbeck’s descriptions of Cannery Row and its inhabitants reveals a charming set of characters, pimps and whores and homeless drunks, who despite their ordinary lives share wonderful experiences together. You can read this in an afternoon, but it will leave you enchanted for some time afterwards.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
In just one or two thousand words Denis Johnson can write a vignette that transports you to rural America, puts you into the life of a relapsing drug addict, in the company of other addicts, drunks, petty criminals, burnouts and wasters. The narratives are chaotic and often inconclusive in these interlinked tales but the imagery contained within dimly illuminate this world in a hopeful light.

Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Despite being published back in 1955 Lolita remains a controversial book. And for good reason. What the poor, hopelessly romantic Humbert Humbert would have us understand as a tragic love affair, we know to be the lusting (and ultimately, rape) of an eleven year old girl. Humbert is despicable and depraved, veering from unapologetic manipulation to self disgust at his perversions. Nabokov succeeds in making Humbert both a vile villain and a sympathetic protagonist. And his prose is so playful and deep and full of symmetry. A disturbing book that is at times tough to read, but equally tough to put down.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August by William Faulkner
You know, I’ve read essays and critical analyses for both Absalom and Light in August, and it left me feeling inadequate and underprepared. I’m not going to lie to you and say that I find Faulkner easy to read but I enjoyed these two books and I thought I had a good grasp of what occurred within each narrative. Turns out I missed a hell of a lot of symbolism, double meanings and thematic values the first time around. Faulkner’s writing is heavy and severe and his stories sprawl in a nonlinear way. Sometimes I get lost, sometimes I have to turn back and start again. Sometimes it’s the getting there, the way a story unfolds, that makes it a story worth telling.

Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune is considered a sci-fi classic by many, so I was a little disappointed when I finally got around to reading it. Perhaps it hasn’t aged as well as other science fiction? While the desert planet of Arrakis is a fascinating setting and the world building by Herbert is superbly vivid and rich, almost everything else I found to be lacking, the prose, the dialogue, the cliched fantasy characters. I can see the influence Dune has had on the science fiction and fantasy genres but it doesn’t quite hold up to those high standards now.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov
In some ways my criticisms of Foundation are somewhat similar to my criticisms of Dune. Asimov, as he did countless times during his life, created an innovative and original premise. The sense of scope and scale is impressive too. But again, one dimensional characters engage in fairly dry (and sometimes downright dull) discussions of politics and trade negotiations and faith in the Foundation itself. Some of the concepts are interesting, but others really did feel like a slog to get through.

London Fields by Martin Amis.
A bit rubbish to be honest. Amis creates a lot of ideas, potentially interesting ones at that, but none of them stick. Unlikeable characters pegged precisely into their social classes do awful things over and over again. It’s all rather aimless. Not too dissimilar to this blog.

Cheers, N.

Roberto Bolaño’s dreamlike prose is something I adore – I’ve made no attempt to hide the impact his sprawling classic 2666 has left on me, along with the compelling short story collection The Return, containing some incredibly dark and saddening tales. The ‘floating’ feeling Bolaño’s words can elicit is in plentiful supply in Last Evenings on Earth, published in 1997 and translated into English by Chris Andrews in 2006.

last evenings on earth

The collection of stories written by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, found within Last Evenings on Earth, are profoundly character – rather than plot – driven, focussing on the thoughts and fears of the protagonists. These narrators are often struggling poets or writers (and seem to me like imprints of Bolaño himself) and frequently speak in the first person as if confessing, or re-examining, their actions and thoughts, trapped in a paranoid and tortured void between Europe and their various (Latin American) homelands.

The titular Last Evenings on Earth is one of the highlights, in which B (presumably Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter ego) and his father go on vacation to a beach resort in Mexico, which ominously builds to a violent climax. Dance Card‘s narrator returns to Chile in 1973 to help rebuild socialism, is arrested and imprisoned and accused of being a terrorist, only to be released by a pair of detectives he knew from school (the class mates from Detectives, the story within The Return). 

A quote from Gómez Palacio, where a 23 year old poet takes a position teaching creative writing in the titular town, and goes on an unusual car ride with the writing director.

…at first I couldn’t see anything, only darkness, the sparkling lights of that restaurant or town, then some cars went past and the beams of their headlights carved the space in two… And then I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light, that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road – a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground – but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

In Dentist, the narrator visits an old friend, a dentist, who introduces him to a poor Indian boy who is a literary genius and whom the dentist appears to be in love with. A fantastic quote from Dentist on the nature of art in one of many tequila-inspired conversations:

That’s what art is, he said, the story of a life in all its particularity. It’s the only thing that really is particular and personal. It’s the expression and, at the same time, the fabric of the particular. And what do you mean by the fabric of the particular? I asked, supposing he would answer: Art. I was also thinking, indulgently, that we were pretty drunk already and that it was time to go home. But my friend said: What I mean is the secret story…. The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.

Bolaño is, here and throughout his body of work, evasive, elusive, transparent, but also observational, coherent, inspirational. The dreamlike quality of his texts blend surrealism, wit, political and philosophical analysis, and I will continue to study and enjoy as many of his stories as I can.

What’s the hurry, son?

hocus pocus

Hocus Pocus tells the story of the life of Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam War veteran and a former college professor who, while awaiting trial in prison and dying slowly of TB (cough, cough), considers the final tally of two activities he excelled at throughout his life; the number of people he killed during the Vietnam War, and the number of women he slept with throughout his life. Mild spoiler: the number is the same for both (and it’s pretty high). In his confinement, he scribbles on hundreds of pieces of paper to form a fragmented narrative

The events that occur are always slightly eccentric, and stretch belief – I often find Vonnegut narratives are like fairy tales loosely grounded in reality. In Hocus Pocus, we hear of a prison riot (inspired by the Attica Prison riot in 1971), where the all-black inmates march across a frozen lake and begin opening fire on civilians of the town, taking the professors at a college hostage and even shooting and crucifying a member of the staff. There is a genetic craziness that affects Hartke’s mother-in-law, and eventually Hartke’s wife, and potentially any further women who share the ticking time-bomb genes. A computer program called GRIOT can give an approximation of what sort of life a person may lead based on an existing database of other people, with the variable information needed being: age, race, degree of education, and drug use.

It’s bonkers, but this is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, so it should be expected. In his uniquely satirical way, Vonnegut points a finger at the wrongs, the injustice in the world. Hocus Pocus contains his views on the Vietnam War, the treatment of veteran soldiers, the careless destruction of the environment, the divide between the rich and poor, the state of America’s prisons, and so on. Really, in this novel more than his others, it’s difficult to prioritise one particular theme here. Vonnegut simply does what he does best – he preaches, with sharp humour and ominous warnings, without the patronising superiority and condescension.

That said, Hocus Pocus is not one of Vonnegut’s stronger books. Unlike Slaughterhouse 5, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan – I think Hocus Pocus,  published in 1990 and Vonnegut’s penultimate novel, is for the most part, forgettable. It’s enjoyable, it’s humorous, it’s touching, but unlike the very best he wrote, I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking over the book since I finished it. Or maybe I have. The beauty of Vonnegut’s stories is that, amongst the despair and suffering and sadness, there is hope and beauty. I like to think the impact of his books never truly leaves your subconscious.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, is a monstrous creation of twentieth century literature, a harrowing and sprawling massacre, biblical in scale and tone. The majority of the book takes place in the borderlands of southern United States and Mexico, in the middle of the nineteenth century, a time of conflict and war for land, boundaries and culture. Irregular US army outfits push into Mexico to claim land for America, encroaching on the regions of Native Americans who hunt, and are hunted by, mercenaries in the thriving market for indian scalps. More closely, the narrator follows ‘The Kid’, a young adolescent who leaves home and becomes entangled with a group of depraved scalp hunters, led by John Joel Glanton. Together, the ‘Glanton Gang’ carve a bloody swath through the borderlands, initially hunting Indians for the bounties on their scalps, before turning their guns and knives towards any living being in their path, peaceful indigenous tribes and innocent citizens, to fulfil their desire for sadistic pleasure or senseless nihilism or something else entirely.

bloodmeridian

On criticism of McCarthy’s Western odyssey, there is none more discussed than the use of violence. Brutal, gratuitous, humiliating, terrifying, nauseating. Blood Meridian chronicles the murder of men, women and children, the rape and destruction of entire communities and towns, the scalping and mutilating of corpses who even in death cannot rest. The Wild West is a nightmare world and bloodshed is its currency, it is the. But more unsettling than any of the countless encounters which end in death and desecration, is the presence of one man throughout, Judge Holden.

Blood Meridian is full of terrible characters, and all men in this tortured land can be considered villains. McCarthy heavily researched and based the Gang’s sordid exploits on the memoirs of Samuel Chamberlain, My Confessions: The Recollections of a Rogue, and Chamberlain confirms he rode with John Joel Glanton and his outlaws between 1849 and 1850. The Glanton Gang’s penchant for violence is nauseating, but the role of a true antagonist in the novel is slowly but surely filled by the Judge Holden, arguably one of literature’s greatest. Shall we start with appearance? “Immense and terrible”, the judge stands at seven feet tall, massive in frame, extremely pale white flesh, and a giant dome of a head, completely bald and lacking any body hair, including eyebrows and eyelashes. He stands out of any crowd and is instantly recognisable. Holden is first encountered by the Kid early on in the novel, at a tent revival in Nacogdoches, where he incites a crowd to physically attack a preacher, and whom before being engulfed by the crowd, calls the judge out as the devil. An early glimpse that this man is capable of easily influencing the minds of men.

The reader comes to know Holden as a professional scalphunter in the Glanton gang, when the Kid and Toadvine are recruited by Glanton from a jail in Chihuahua, and while Holden’s talent for violence and killing is clear, it becomes evident that the judge is successful at anything he puts his hand to. As Tobin the expriest says, ‘a dab hand’. And through late night conversations around campfires or in darkened taverns in foreign lands, Holden displays preternatural knowledge and skill for paleontology, linguistics, law, philosophy and more. He is articulate and persuasive. His strength and movement is unnatural (he is an excellent musician and dancer) with fast reflexes and a skilled marksman. Several of the gang refer to meeting Holden at some point in the past. All agree, he seems not to age a day.

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Some scholars have highlighted ‘gnostic’ elements present throughout Blood Meridian. By no means an expert, I’ve understood Gnosticism to refer to religious beliefs and systems which understand the material/physical world and the human body to contain the Divine spark, which can be translated as knowledge or knowing, and the judge represents a demiurge, the ruler of the material world, often malevolent or an archon, a kind of demon. Certainly, the nature of the judge’s chilling views suggest he holds some higher status over the human race, particularly when he explicitly expresses to want to be a ‘suzerain’.

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

Whether or not McCarthy intended Holden as a gnostic archon or not, the first time I read Blood Meridian, I had a theory that the judge was,  if not the Devil himself, some other demon or evil incarnate, with whom Glanton struck a deal. The Glanton gang are gifted – miraculously talented – at killing, becoming an almost unstoppable force of merciless savagery. And for the scalps they take from men, woman and children they are rewarded with currency, food, liquor. Glanton is despicable and the undisputed leader but he seems to listen to the judge, and values keeping Holden with the gang, as evil and unsettling the presence of the judge may be. Once Glanton died, the ‘deal’ was broken, and this lead to the harrowing pursuit by Holden of the Kid and the expriest through the desert, to collect debts. Of course, this might have made sense if the judge did kill Toadvine and David Brown, but it is revealed they died the following year, hung publicly in Los Angeles. In subsequent readings the theory seems a little heavy handed, but it did make some sense when the judge returns at the end of the book to confront the Kid. Regardless, it’s clear to me the judge is not merely a man.

He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

There is plenty of speculation of the fate of the Kid, now a man, at the end of Blood Meridian. The judge appears to ambush the Kid in the jakes outside a saloon, naked, and ‘gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh’. The narrator chooses not to reveal the kid’s fate, and the only words an onlooker can mutter when witnessing the scene is “Good God almighty”. In a book which graphically depicts shocking violence throughout, something happens in the jakes that is indescribable in its horror. A haunting ending, one where the judge returns to the saloon to dance into the night, boasting that he never sleeps and he will never die.

John Steinbeck is one of the great American writers. His novels and short stories frequently took place in southern and central California and often focuses on themes of love, fate and justice, with ‘everyman’ – often terribly flawed – central characters. After the world celebrated Steinbeck “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, after a body of work containing the Pulitzer Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath, and other notable works such as Cannery Road and Of Mice and Men. But it is the epic East of Eden, published in 1952, that Steinbeck considered his magnum-opus. “There is only one book to a man”, Steinbeck famously wrote of East of Eden, a 600 page novel set in the Salinas Valley, California, at the turn of the 20th century.

eastofeden

The narrator tells the story of two families – the Trasks, headed by Adam, and the Hamiltons, headed by Samuel – as their lives intertwine over several generations in the rich farmland of the Salinas Valley. I won’t go into any more detail than that – I can’t, not without writing another thousand words – but East of Eden is heavily influenced on the Bible’s Book of Genesis, especially the story of Cain and Abel, and the struggle for their father, Adam. The title itself is taken from Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden.”

The Trask family end up re-enacting the rivalry of Cain and Abel not once but twice in the book. First, with Adam and Charles Trask vying for their father Cyrus’s love, and then in Salinas, where Adam raises the two twins Aron and Caleb Trask, alone. The parallels are obvious, from brothers being very different people, to the handling of rejection and the wrath of jealousy, and the consequences of these actions. I don’t think Steinbeck was trying in any way to be subtle, and while the symbolism may seem somewhat heavy handed at times, they are no less powerful, and this is testament to how well Steinbeck writes and breathes life into these characters. Lee, the Trask’s Cantonese, surprisingly philosophical servant, and old Sam Hamilton, a jolly inventor and farmer who is adored by all for his strength and heart and values, are personal favourites, and I have not felt such a strong attachment and admiration for two fictional characters in some time.

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

East of Eden is a strange book. To describe it as ‘biblical’ is sheer laziness, but it is a unique and beautiful read. It feels historical, mythical, magical all at once. It suffers from heavy handed characters, some of which are too easily defined as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, it can be verbose and melodramatic, but it has a strong heart. A compelling fable retelling the story of man’s original sin, the maddening way of love and the consequences of its absence, and the internal struggle that happens within all of us, that of right and wrong, and the human ability, that freedom to choose.

But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.

Last year Curtis Bausse hosted a writing competition, which I took part in. I did not win, but my short story was included in an anthology. My piece was called ‘Coffee, Whisky, Funeral‘, and it followed a man returning to his home town in order to bury his father.

c,w,f

All submitted stories had to use the following quote (from Curtis’s novel One Green Bottle) as a prompt:

A long time ago, when life was tolerable, almost good, he had two cats that kept him company. How old was he? Seven? Eight? Before his father began to question the worth of his existence. Back then, presumably, he was cute, almost as cute as the tabbies. He never knew what happened to them but they disappeared, both of them, all of a sudden, and he was left only with an inconsolable sadness.

Curtis has been taking part in the A-Z challenge, in which he is attempting to blog every day throughout the month of April. Recently, he chose to focus on Coffee, Whisky, Funeral for one of his posts. You can visit the link on Curtis’s blog here.

The anthology is called Cat Tales and you can purchase it on Amazon here. The proceeds from Cat Tales go to two charities, Cats Protection and the Against Malaria foundation.

Roberto Bolaño died in 2003, age 50, and left behind a frenzied body of work that has embodied him as a giant of Latin American literature. He received unanimous critical praise for 2666 posthumously, despite primarily being a struggling poet for much of his life, only really turning to literature and fiction for his last ten years on Earth. The Return, translated by Chris Andrews and published in English in 2010, is a collection of short stories initally contained within Bolaño’s two Spanish collections, Llamadas Telefonicas (1997), and Putas Asesinas (2001). With much of Bolaño’s work, it is generally dark in tone but often deeply personal, with stories emerging from reminiscing friends, or reliving past and repressed memories.

the-returnbolano

The titular The Return is arguably the pick of the stories: a revolting and surreal story of a celebrity necrophiliac, with a tantalising opening line (I have good news and bad news. The good news is there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.”) But in truth there are many fascinating tales within. Detectives contains no prose or description, only the speech between two detectives as they drive through the night, and which is loosely based on Bolaño’s arrest and imprisonment during the Pinochet regime in his native Chile, where he was allegedly allowed to escape by prison guards he had once attended college with). Prefiguration of Lalo Cura follows the childhood memories of a man whose mother was a pornographic actress, a deeply disturbing look into the adult film industry and Latin America as a whole. Photos and Meeting with Enrique Lihn are surreal nightmares of which nothing is truly certain.

Not every story is up to the high standards of those mentioned above but all do share that awful quality of foreboding terror and violence, while life continues to float on by in its absurd and accepted normality. A brilliant insight into the mind of Roberto Bolaño.