Books read (all or part of) this week:
Things I Like About America: Personal Essays by Poe Ballantine
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan
Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser
Arkansas by John Brandon
Things I Like About America: Poe’s stellar, outstanding, hilarious, moving collection of personal essays is every bit as fantastic as 2013 Catapult Notable #4, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. He’s my new obsession.
Strange Bodies: this weirdo novel is about a man who’s consciousness has been transported into the body of another by a group of rogue Russian crackpots testing the boundaries of immortality. No one believes poor Nicholas – who’s actual body is most definitely dead – and he doesn’t have a lot of time to expose the plot before his new vessel keels on him too. There’s also an overweight Russian thug with the mind of lexicographer and distinguished man of letters, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) inhabiting his skull. Here’s “Johnson” waiting for his pizza to be served at a restaurant:
He would get very animated waiting for the order, drumming his fingers on the plastic tablecloth and wagging his head from side to side. “Depend upon it, sir, many a rich man dining tonight upon roast swan would as lief exchange his vittles for a plate of this cooked cheese!”
That just cracks me up. Verily, this is a weird book, as Johnson might say. But not as weird as you might think. It ends up being more about Nicholas’ sad struggle with identity and his dealing with the shards of memory and emotion that he has been left with after his consciousness was splintered so unnaturally. **Bonus fun fact: Marcel Theroux is travel writer Paul Theroux’s son.
Sticking with the unintentional “monster” thread to my reading, onward to Glen Duncan’s third werewolf novel, By Blood We Live – on sale in February. (You may remember Duncan’s first werewolf novel, The Last Werewolf, was the 2011 Catapult Notable #7.) Sometimes I have to take a step back and realize that there is a thread to the things I (we) read. I hadn’t noticed that Theroux’s “frankenstein” novel was awfully related to Duncan’s werewolf/vampire one. Huh.
Anyway, the conclusion to Duncan’s trilogy is scary, bloody… and shockingly erotic. I’m talking werewolf-on-werewolf action, werewolf-on-vampire action, vampire-sucking-the-blood-out-of-human action, militant-Christians-beheading-werewolf action, and werewolf-completely-eating-multiple-humans action. There are even two little kids who are werewolves. And a vampire who is 20,000 years old. Stop for a minute and think about that. (I spent a lot of time wrapping my head around this guy’s age. He was like 15,000 years old when the Great Pyramid was built!) The whole book is pretty light fare, so to speak – Duncan’s prose is solid and probably better than that of the rest of the werewolf genre, but it’s not going to blow your hair back. I think he surprised me with The Last Werewolf being so literary and well-crafted, but now that’s sort of worn off. I enjoyed this, don’t get me wrong, but there was less ground-breaking going on here than in TLW – which, I suppose, is inevitable when you’ve already smashed a genre to bits. The pace is relentless and Duncan keeps everyone in the dark (no pun intended) as to what the big picture might be that it stays fun throughout. But I thought it sort of fizzled in the end. Like a vampire in the sun.
Yesterday I tasted one essay from Wendy Lesser’s new book, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books – the afterword, “The Book as Physical Object.” She concludes a lovely essay on the subject talking about a seemingly arbitrary list of Modern Library classics listed in the back of her 1951 copy of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. I still have the year-end list-making on my mind, I guess, because this one particular section stuck out to me – on the nature of book lists and their duty to future generations. The Modern Library list had some odd choices – books that have since been lost in the sands of time, while omitting some major 20th-century works.
But that is only normal for a list of this kind: it is inevitable, if the list-makers are doing their job properly. It does no good simply to recommend the carefully plucked, time-approved choices of the past. Reading, if it is to stay alive, must be of its time as well as out of it.
No list, no opinion, however valid in its time, will last forever.
To me, a list like the valiant, generous Modern Library one is intensely moving, even in its misjudgments. The point is to take a stab at it – sharing the individual and collective wisdom, at assessing what matters and what does not – and then to abide with the consequences. In the never-ending conversation about what might count as good literature, there are many worse things than being wrong.
One last thing – in the spirit of list-making – our local newspaper, UT-San Diego (or whatever they’re calling themselves now) has FINALLY digitized some selections from local booksellers and posted them on the interweb. See, every week, one bookseller and one librarian each write a review of a book for the UT’s Book page. Nice, right? Except that the world at large never sees it because the reviews are never put on their website… until now!! On December 29, the five participating independent bookstores in San Diego picked their two favorite titles of 2013 – mine are on page 2: http://web.utsandiego.com/news/2013/Dec/30/bookstores-favorite-books-of-2013