July 9, 2011

What I've Been Reading (a lot)

It's been a while since I posted anything on this blog so I'll try to ease my way back into it by using the crutch of my recent readings. I've been reading about two books a week for the last couple of months, partially because I bought so many books on my recent trip to New York (over 30) that the proportion of unread books in my library started making me feel a little guilty. In addition, my insanely optimistic New Year's resolution to read 100 books this year seemed very far from being fulfilled (see table at right). Still, if I keep up this pace I might be able to get to 80, which is still over the annual average of about 50.

Some Short Novels

Nabokov's Mary, his first novel, very reminiscent of his early short stories, takes place in the Russian émigré community in Berlin and features a selection of mostly pathetic characters and situations, but not much of a plot. James M. Cain's Double Indemnity is as well written and tightly plotted as his earlier novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, though the characters seemed to me a little less alive and palpable, perhaps lacking that bit of existential angst which made Frank Chambers such a compelling character.

Mario Bellatin's Beauty Salon is an interesting take on the "mysterious plague" genre (from Camus's The Plague to every zombie fiction ever) focusing on a gay hairdresser who turns his beauty salon into a home for the dying. The plain language used to describe everything from the narrator's fish collection to his transvestite outings and the strange plague sweeping over the land (a metaphor for AIDS?) works remarkably well to ground the whole narrative in some sort of reality and, short as the work is, it makes a lasting impression. At the other end of the "mythical events interfering in humdrum reality" spectrum is David Garnett's Lady into Fox, where a British gentleman tries to deal, practically and calmly, with the fact that his dear wife had suddenly turned into a fox. Though this was a pleasant enough read, I kept waiting for something a little more interesting to occur, but aside from the initial transformation the whole narrative progressed quite sedately and sensibly towards its somewhat pat conclusion.

And Some Longer Novels

Steve Erickson's Tours of the Black Clock, #98 on Larry McCaffrey's list of the Twentieth Century's 100 greatest works of fiction, is an odd and sprawling narrative mixing alternative history, erotic fantasy, hard-boiled literary clichés, and melodrama, with a consistent but unconvincing underlying romantic/fantastic sensibility. There are at least three separate narratives here, all of them going on for far too long and connecting to each other very clumsily in terms of the overall narrative.

Francine Prose's Blue Angel presents itself (or its author and blurbs present it) as a biting satire of Creative Writing workshops, teachers, and attendees, but after a promising set up the story very quickly dissolves into a typical narrative of an older professor enamored with a mysterious young student who turns out to be, quite predictably, his undoing. The setting is a typical small New England college, the characters are pedestrian (the formerly successful writer turned professor, the supportive wife, the alienated daughter, the "not-as-innocent-as-she-seems" student, the man hating Über-feminist female literature professor, the gay deconstructionist who loathes books and writers, the moronic students and their terrible writing... believe me, I could go on), the writing is thankfully straightforward, which makes this a relatively quick read, though the dénouement is cringingly predictable. Throughout the novel seems more concerned with the challenges of teaching in the era of political correctness (though published in 2001 it feels very mid 90's, post Lewinsky scandal) than the actual personalities and motivations of the characters that inhabit it.

You don't need me to tell you that James Dickey's Deliverance is worth reading. Though at times it feels like Dickey is pushing the dramatic tension a bit too much, and I'd be hard pressed to find proof of its true literary merit, it's a gripping read nonetheless.

And Some Graphic Novels
This field is still relatively new to me and I'm still trying to figure out what's worth reading and what my personal preferences are. As for superhero comics it seems I'm far less tolerant of collected comics than one-shot narratives. the storylines in Doom Patrol's The Painting that Ate Paris, for example, were brought up and resolved far too quickly and easily for my taste, which is a shame since there were some pretty interesting ideas there (e.g. the villain who only has super-powers as long as they are unimagined by others, or the brotherhood of Dada which seeks to make the world more ludicrous).

That said, The Dark Knight Strikes Again proved an even bigger disappointment, a mostly uninteresting and incomprehensible sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Both of these later Batman stories pale in comparison to Jeph Loeb's The Long Halloween and its sequel Dark Victory, the first is a well-constructed detective story which draws heavily (and successfully) on The Godfather film series and the latter, though heavily dependent on the former and almost imitative of its structure, is nonetheless a good read which, unlike The Dark Knight Strikes Again, does not require intimate knowledge of the DC universe in order to be enjoyed or understood.
Finally there's Dino Buzzati's 1969 Poem Strip, a beautiful and spare retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice through surreal and erotic drawings (recently republished in English as part of the NYRB classics list, of which I can't get enough).