A Mid-Year Book Ranking

I like lists, rankings, reviews, organizations, schema and structures, anatomies; because of this, and since the year is halfway over now, and since I don’t want to forget what I’ve read as I often do (I’m basically a bad, sloppy reader), I wanted to make a ranked list of everything that I’ve read in 2019 so far.

Each book’s rank is derived from an admixture of 1) how much I enjoyed reading it, and 2) how it stands in my esteem now, today, June 19th, after having finished it and moved on for shorter or longer stretches of time.

God Tier

Herzog by Saul Bellow
A full piece is forthcoming on Herzog, easily the biggest and best surprise of the year. I expected to love 2666J R, Train Dreams, books that’re so clearly fashioned from the stuff I gravitate towards. But I thought, wrongly, that I had moved beyond Saul Bellow, who seems so normal, so achingly, boringly a “writer,” with his natty bow ties, stable of standard awards, the sheer noveliness of his novel’s names: The Dean’s December? Seize the Day? Get the fuck outta here.

But, I am a bad reader, and I was wrong. Rich, funny, sad, raw – pick your favorite blurb-word fallalerie, it applies to Herzog  – but applies truly: this is a work of deep erudition and deep heart, a character study that’s as richly drawn as any I’ve ever read, a book about a man thinking that, through the all-grabbing vitality of its prose, manages to make that process of thought a thrilling, page-turning experience.

(And out of anything I’ve ever read it’s the book I most wish you would read; I want to know what you would make of it).

2666 by Roberto Bolaño
I reviewed this book here. Amazing, looking forward to taking another pass at it next year. One thing that’s worth mentioning, I think, is the sheer readability of 2666; although it is long, and juggles some arcane subjects like evil, death, and our own human hearts, it reads so easily, so smoothly – without losing any artistic individuality.

S-Rank

J R by William Gaddis
I actually began J R last year, but read about half of it in January so I think it counts. A very great book, and by no means as difficult as its reputation would suggest – in many ways I found The Recognitions harder to get through, although that is also a powerful and most excellent novel.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
I reviewed Jesus’ Son here. Since reading it I’ve had to dig it out again, and I keep it on the stack on my nightstand to browse through on occasion, reading choice passages – and almost every passage in this slender little knife of a book is choice.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Johnson did it again with Train Dreams, which I read in two delightful hours a couple weeks ago. I thought about reviewing it, but really, if you’re interested at all in Johnson’s work, just pick up a copy and read it yourself.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
My first reread of GR since I read it in ’07 or ’08 was mostly positive. The sheer force of the art here is beyond reproach, but truth be told there was much in the book I didn’t enjoy, or didn’t quite ‘get.’ The near insanity of GR‘s constant, onrushing density of detail, its endless appurtenances of fantasy and fever dream and aside, do induce fatigue, even if the prose is uniformly capital-B Beautiful. I highly recommend it and love it, and it’ll always be a totem for me, but it does engender some readerly brennschluss.

A-Rank

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
At some point I have to write something articulating the concept of Perfection in fiction: what an author gains and loses by pursuing, and maybe even achieving, it. The Leopard is pretty damn perfect, a beautiful book, and if you ever need a guide of how to write historical fiction – what to include, what to show, etc. – this one’ll teach ya. Rich and invigorating.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Found this one manifestly great, but also kind of…cold? It’s hard to explain in brief, but there’s a certain distance to the narration that made 100 Years easy to admire but hard to love. It does have an unbelievable, perfect first chapter though, and an ending that’ll rip your heart out (don’t worry, it’ll grow back).

B-Rank

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
I took some notes on this one here. This cowboy epic went down easy, but didn’t stick with me. I can see why people like it, and I don’t think that it’s without artistic merit, unlike other popularly apotheosized doorstops (cough A Game of Thrones cough), but I think it fails to be the critique of Western myth it so clearly wants to be.

New Book Survey: ACE Book Sale

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Every summer Case Western University has the ACE Book Sale, and every summer that I’ve been in Ohio and haven’t been otherwise waylaid, I’ve gone. I even went the day before I moved to Boulder, and brought back a box of 20-some books, most of which stayed in Ohio and are still unread to this day.

The sale takes place in the Adelbert Gym, with the books laid out on folding tables is loosely-defined categories indicated by paper signs that look like they haven’t been changed since the 70s. Dimly lit, but with the doors open letting in sunlight, the sale can be crowded: with local brick-n-mortar or online booksellers going through the rows with their scanners, scooping up anything that could be resold later; old men with Vietnam ballcaps on but dressed otherwise as if for church, hovering noncommittally around the history section; youth church couples talking brightly at the back; a few kids with their parents; older people toting canvas bags tortured into polyhedrals by the paperbacks stuffed inside them…

Other than its scale, the defining characteristic of the ACE Book Sale is that almost everything is cheap, so you indulge in whimsical impulse purchases without feeling criminally frivolous. You’re expected to leave with a lot of books. There’s a gated ring in the middle where a volunteer just tapes cardboard boxes together so people can use them to hold all the stuff they’re taking home.

This year I ended up with 20 new books, plus one extra from another nearbyish bookstore.

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford

I’m not intensely interested in the period or people this book covers – it’s a slim volume on the Louis XIV and his court – but the NYRB Classics edition is a pleasingly bold yellow and has a drawing of Louis on the front dressed in an Apollo costume, all gilt spurs and elaborate sunray appurtenances; he has an exalted vacant oracular look in his eyes and skin pale as Greek yogurt, like an extraterrestrial or the last functionary of an annihilated religion wandering dazed out of the ruins of a temple.

Loving by Henry Green

Green: well, I discovered him years ago in some article I only half-remember now, but I never read any of his stuff at that time. Not too long ago NYRB Classics reissued all of his novels in their usual attractive style. I get a good feeling from this book, like there’s a chance it could be my Next Big Connection, as happened recently with Denis Johnson.

Memoirs of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson

Another NYRB, and a real beaut. Wilson I can take or leave at this point – maybe unfairly, I associate him with Nabokov, probably because of their friendship/feud. But I did at one time read and enjoy a pretty big chunk of Patriotic Gore so maybe someday I’ll pick this one up and like it.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Picked up Cholera because I’m currently in the middle of One Hundred Years of Solitude and liking/possibly loving it, and because none other than the Dad himself, Thomas Pynchon, wrote an incandescent review of the novel in the NY Times. I was happy to find an older copy that doesn’t have the blandly beautiful look of the current, available-in-book-stores edition; mine has a pretty sexy illustration by Cathleen Toelke on it.

Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe by Daniel Hoffman

Wanted this book for a while. I love it when people who aren’t professional scholars – or, at least, not only professional scholars, or, at least, don’t write like professional scholars – write scholarly books, because they remember to bring fire to their . Analysis is easy but, unaccompanied by passion, it’s bloodless, unartistic; give me the idiosyncratic appreciations (like John Berryman’s essay on Matthew Monk Lewis) that shimmer with their own aesthetic qualities. Hoffman is a poet and so I feel like this book will be to my liking.

Incidentally it’s been years since I read any Poe; I remember going through a lot of his stories when my grandpa was sick, when I was in middle school; and then later I dated a girl who gave me her big Collected Works at some point; she embroidered one of Poe’s poems with ink pen illustrations around the text.

Raven: The Untold Story of Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs

Finding myself more and more gripped by the story of Jonestown, the dangerous allure of the story. Among much else, it is the story of an American Sickness. This is one of two big books on Jonestown and I was happy to find an immaculate copy at ACE.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

An impulse purchase. Not deeply moved by Roman history, but Graves is a figure I want to know more about and this seems like a sensible entry point into his oeuvre.

Omeros by Derek Walcott

Found an pristine copy at the sale – which I just learned has a cover painting done by Walcott himself. I am deeply, embarrassingly, terminally under read in poetry, and I’d like to remedy that; novel-like epic poems are a more amenable entry point for my prosy novelbrain than ‘regular’ books of poems are.

The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

Another impulse purchase. For man years, and based on virtually nothing concrete – I haven’t read a single one of his books – I’ve held the belief that Rushdie is very clever but maybe not a great writer. I could be very wrong, and he wrote one of the best reviews of Vineland when it came out, so there’s little basis for my opinion, and so maybe someday I’ll give this one a try.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto

My occasional dives into Japanese literature have always produced some of the best reading experiences in recent years. Now that I’ve wandered among some of the classics – Genji, Botchan, Silence – I want to dip into popular Japanese fiction. Until just now I thought this was a collection of stories but I’m happy to discover it’s actual a novel, which I prefer. It’s also one that I, at some point in the past, researched and wanted, although I didn’t make the connection when I picked this copy up on impulse at ACE.

Liebling Abroad by A.J. Liebling

Last year I read Liebling’s The Earl of Louisianna before going to New Orleans and liked it a lot. Liebling seems like one of those prolific writers whose main merit is in his general style and craft across an entire career, rather than any specific culminations in individual works. I feel like you could pick a page at random from any book of his and read it with delectation. This omnibus brings together four of Liebling’s books in full.

Books 3 – 6 of The Lymond Chronicles: The Disorderly Knights, Pawn in Frankincense, The Ringed Castle, and Checkmate, by Dorothy Dunnett

Read the first Lymond book, A Game of Kings, a few years ago. The first copy I had had some kind of dust attached to its pages that gave me the most vicious sinus headaches I ever had, so I had to buy a new, clean copy to finish the book, which I did in basically one long marathon session. It easily established itself in the same lofty Historical Fiction As Huge Entertainment But Also Fully Functioning Art category as the Aubrey-Maturin books. It has been written about elsewhere but Kings really truly does have the best swordfight scene I have ever read in it.

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

Another Biblioklept recommendation. It looks cool, with weird indie press dimensions that I find pleasing. No plans to read it at this time.

Mishima: A Vision of the Void by Marguerite Yourcenar

I had no clue that Yourcenar wrote an analysis of Mishima, but when I saw that she had I had to have it. I’d really like to get around to Mishima himself, sooner rather than later; maybe I need to add Spring Snow to the reading list this year…

My Silent War by Kim Philby

The autobiography of the 20th century’s most notorious spy appeals on its own, but really I bought this in case I wanted to bulk up on my Philby knowledge before reading Tim Powers’s Declare.

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson

I’m suddenly very painfully attuned to Johnson; Jesus’ Son gets better and better the more I think about it, and I recently read Train Dreams in one enraptured session. I get weird pangs lately where I want to go and reread “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” I’m almost certain Tree of Smoke will be the next book I read. Basically, any and all Johnson material I spot is an insta-buy for me at this point. So I scooped this up without a second thought. I like the cover, and the way the book feels; it makes me imagine a world where I am wealthy and live in an unugly state where the sun is often out, and I can go to the big box book stores and buy new books when they come out and read them over the course of several simple uncluttered pleasant afternoons.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I didn’t like Wind-Up Bird Chronicle very much. I wonder – I worry – that Murakami just isn’t all that good. I hope I’m wrong because literally everything about him should be right up my alley. He just somehow fails to quite be what he should. Anyway, I’m deliberating what will be my second Murakami book and Kafka seems like a likely choice.

Moving On by Larry McMurtry

This was not acquired at ACE. I got it from Mac’s Backs on Coventry, after the draining the ACE sale of all possible juice. Couldn’t resist this big, ugly edition of this book. I have hopes this could be a sleeper hit for me. I want to find a book that deliver the sadness of smalltown life, of dust-covered rodeos and carnivals under evening lights, and all the other faded American pastelerie. Maybe McMurtry could deliver. He’s a capable if efficient-to-the-point-of-being-almost-colorless writer, and I’ve heard that this book won him a lot of fans back in the day.

Review: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

 

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First: many thanks to the excellent Biblioklept.org for pointing me in the direction of many fine books, most recently and notably 2666 and Jesus’ Son. If you like anything at all about what I’m trying to do with Demilecteur, please go check out Biblioklept, which was one of the primary inspirations for this blog.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is a collection of linked short stories, concerning the luminously turbulent life and experiences of an unnamed narrator, a young man whose life has spiraled off into drug and alcohol addiction. Although each story functions as a discrete episode and can be read on its own (with “Two Men” and “The Other Man” being the only slight exceptions), reading Jesus’ Son front to back turns it into something other than a collection stories, but also other than a conventional novel: a micro-series of nested correspondences, a maze in miniature, a fragmented, distracted picaresque.

I read Johnson’s novel Angels some – maybe as many as ten, Jesus Christ – years ago. I liked it. Scenes from it have stuck with me to this day, and come back to me anytime I think about the novel, are returning even as I write this sentence; but I also recall a vague disappointment attendant upon finishing and processing it. On the strength of Jesus’ Son alone I’d bet the disappointment is my fault, not the book’s. Sometimes you don’t have the right weak spots inside you, yet, for a good book to strike at; I’d like to return to Angels at some point.

Anyway: Jesus’ Son. It’s fantastic. If we lump it in with other famous pieces of drug lit like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Naked Lunch (I’ve read the former, but not the latter), and I think that’s one valid avenue of approach, one thing that distinguishes it in that subgenre is its ability to convey, on the structural level, the profound decentralization of a drug-addled, addicted state – not just someone who is high or drunk, but somebody submerged in addiction, whose life revolves around the acquisition and consumption of drugs. In Jesus’ Son, drug addiction is not only a plot point as it is in Fear and Loathing (as I remember it), or an aesthetic conceit as in Naked Lunch (as I envision it), but something that has both corrupted and purified the texture of the book itself. The decentralization doesn’t get in the way – it is the way.

This is a deceptively difficult point to illustrate in a review, because the effect is built up subtle in and across each story. A simple for instance: the narrator gets his chronology mixed up, he jumps backwards and forwards in his stories, altering, amending, noting that maybe he doesn’t have the facts quite straight, that maybe he never will, and that, ultimately, it may not matter. Here’s an example from the story “Emergency,” from just after the narrator has explained how he accidentally sat on and killed a litter of infant bunnies he and his friend Georgie were keeping in a truck; suddenly the exact time in his life that this happens starts to fall apart; he questions whether the snowy day he recalls it happening on was in fact a separate time, and whether the next morning he’s about to relate to us occurred then or elsewhere:

Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them. It doesn’t matter…The bunnies weren’t a problem yet, or they’d already been a problem and were already forgotten, and there was nothing on my mind. (Pages 84-85)

This ingrained, troubling, but also casual disregard for the sequence of events does violence to our perception of the importance of time, and then tells us that neither the violence nor time itself matters. Jesus’ Son isn’t really interested in showing you Your Brain on Drugs. It wants to show you Your Life, Which is So Sad and Shattered That It Doesn’t Really Matter Whether This Pitiful Thing Happened Before or After The Next (Or Previous) Pitiful Thing.

Threading all of these scenes together, each as crisply etched as a face on a coin, is Johnson’s prose, a meticulously disheveled kind of prose that moves without catching a breath between matter of fact, staccato, noir-ish relaying of action to flinging out burning scenes of revelation that blossom in and around the narrator as he moves through these tableaux of despair. Check out this holy hybrid; an example from the first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking:”

The man hanging out of the wrecked car was still alive as I passed, and I stopped, grown a little more used to the idea now of how really badly broken he was, and made sure there was nothing I could do. He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real. (pages 9 – 10)

Some writers go entire careers without pursuing the balance and compression on display in this paragraph. There’s the simple melodic beauty of “the idea /now/ of /how/ really badly broken he was;” the ‘now’ and ‘really’ both not necessary to convey general meaning, but essential to the music of the sentence; and the way “really badly broken” conveys a freight of pity right into your skull. But then it’s all punctured by the horror of describing a dying man’s death rattle as loud, rude snoring (echoes of the sounds of tortured Christians in Shusaku Endo’s Silence). And then the whole thing rides an arc of redemption as a symbol of “the great pity of a person’s life on this earth.” But then that pity is punctured – or made more real, which is the same thing – by not being what we expect (that we all die), but rather that we all live unable to communicate anything, really, to one another. And that we’ll die that way too.

So life is a tragedy of silence, but art isn’t, it can speak when our own hearts souls fail to do so, and the whole of Jesus’ Son is littered with revelation. The book has a numinous quality to it; it’s strangely beatific in a way that feels neither forced nor, ultimately, permanent. In the final story, “Beverly Home,” the narrator is recovering from addiction and working a part-time job writing a newsletter at a nursing home. And whereas the other stories ended in moments of epiphanic despair, a kind of poetically fraught hope, or burning revelation, “Beverly Home” ends in a moment of strangely pedestrian summation – very nearly a cliché:

All these weirdoes, and me getting a little better every day right in the middle of them. I had never known, never even imagined for heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us. (Page 160)

To be clear: it works. It’s supposed to be dumb, because unfortunately the truly tangible things are, often, these dumb things. There’s something evanescent about the narrator’s other revelations, his exalted visions. Something subjective, hermetic, untranslatable. He can’t tell us, really, what he’s dreaming; but in the last story he tries to tell us what’s real. And if – great pity – it’s not much, that’s not his fault.

On the eye-quivering quality of Jesus’ Son I’ve put Johnson’s big Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke, onto my 2019 reading list. Go read this one and you may end up doing the same.

Image Credit: Jesus’ Son cover design by Charlotte Mao.