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.

Notes on Lonesome Dove

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I finished Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry this week. I started it as I was pushing through the last quarter or so of J R – after meeting my quota of pages in that book, I would decompress my brain a bit with Lonesome Dove. Its clear, orderly, perfectly uncluttered prose, slick, competent, and unadventurous, took the edge off of the headfires that the complicated architecture of Gaddis’s second novel occasionally induced as I raced to finish it.

None of this is original, but: one readerly phenomena I’ve been particularly attuned to lately is how books age in our minds after the reading’s done. No piece of art is static; the best books get bigger in the mind, exhibiting new doors, unfamiliar staircases, a window overlooking a hidden garden when we return to them, like houses we visit in a dream. Others age badly, deteriorating across the arc of a short half life. A rare few appear to be shrinking, but somehow, at some point in accordance with the changing attunement of our own brain, start to grow big again, achieving if not their original or greater dimensions, then at least something more dignified than the heap it looked like they were becoming.

I’m not sure how Lonesome Dove will age yet. I did enjoy reading it. Here is a first round of notes on the book.

The book is famous, but the miniseries that it spawned is arguably even more famous. I haven’t seen it.

The core of the Lonesome Dove plot is a cattle drive undertaken by the Hat Creek Cattle Company, from Lonesome Dove, Texas all the way up to Montana. The drive is lead by two aging ex-Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae. In the first 250ish pages they bicker, slack off, drink, break horses, and then finally recruit a crew, steal thousands of cattle from Mexico, and head north. The drive is long, arduous, full of dangers big and small, obvious and subtle, overtly antagonistic and natural. McMurtry hangs several subplots onto the framework of this cattle drive, each moving toward resolution at their own particular momentum; some come and go quickly, others run parallel to the main plot for the duration of the novel – which, by the way, is about 950 pages long.

Yes, it’s a big book, but reads extremely fast. Not because the story is exciting (although it often is), but because the prose is so light – undense, almost transparent, nearly weightless. Coming to Lonesome Dove after reading two other, for me foundational Westerns, Warlock and Blood Meridian, I was surprised at the nearly ephemeral quality of the prose and aesthetic here. Calling it flavorless does the book a great disservice, but there is no rigorous aesthetic imperative informing Lonesome Dove. The prose is laconic, matter of fact, just ever-so-slightly canted with the lightest of antiquated diction.

Which is weird, this sparseness, because – incorrectly or not – I’ve been trained to expect lavish descriptions of the frontier from my Western novels. And I particularly expected it from a book that sees the “Greatest Western” sobriquet often laid at its feet. This description of Montana is about as baroque as Lonesome Dove ever gets, and it rarely even goes this far:

The cowboys had lived for months under the great bowl of the sky, and yet the Montana skies seemed deeper than the skies of Texas or Nebraska. Their depth and blueness robbed even the sun of its harsh force – it seemed smaller, in the vastness, and the whole sky no longer turned white at noon as it had in the lower plains. Always, somewhere to the north, there was a swath of blueness, with white clouds floating in it like petals on a pond. (pages 829 – 830)

Pretty, but still veering towards functionality over flourish.

So what did McMurtry fill this 950-page novel with, if not lyrical passages delineating the cruel beauty of the West?

Two things: Incident and Dialogue.

Incident

Many things happen in Lonesome Dove. Almost uniformly, they’re described with the terse efficiency of a computerized cashier telling you that your card has been declined. Even the action scenes aren’t expansive. They usually resolve in a page or two, max.

This actually works for me. Things happen very fast: bullets or arrows fly, animals attack, people are killed, horses die, and it’s over. One undeniably fact of the West is the frighteningly thin line between life and death. This can take the form of the usual cowboy bullshit: bumping into the wrong feller on the way out of the saloon and shooting him down, etc. But it also encompasses accidents, snakebites, the terrifying onset of incurable illnesses. Cowboys can be trampled to death, impaled by an angry bull, mauled by a bear, bitten by a snake, they can die from exhaustion if they get lost without a horse. These things, and the threat of these things, Lonesome Dove portrays tersely, vividly.

Conversely, the descriptions of nature are underwhelming. There’s a big difference between telling a reader a terrible sandstorm happened, and making them feel it right in their fucking brain-nerve. The casual, nearly-bland prose serves the violence well, but doesn’t deliver the scenes of natural devastation to the heart in the same way.

Everything that happens in Lonesome Doves happens fast. I mean that on a structural level. The longest chapters can be breezed through in 20 minutes, maybe 30. On that structural level, the only thing McMurtry lingers on are all the various subplots. He’s happy to take a break from the drive to introduce new characters and new struggles, and to return to these later. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Dialogue

Kind of odd, isn’t it, that rich talk is such an integral part of the Western genre? I’d imagine most cowboys were fairly taciturn. There’s a strange but funny scene at the very end of Lonesome Dove. Call is returning south from Montana to bury Gus. Somewhere on the endless plains he encounters Charles Goodnight, a real historical figure, evidently a well-known person in rancher mythology. He was one of the inspirations for the character of Woodrow Call, so this scene of the two men meeting is a random jag of metafictionality in the midst of a very traditional novel.

Anyway, the real cowboy and the fictional one talk briefly, and at the end of it when Call asks if Goodnight is going into town to see the execution of a famous criminal, Goodnight says:

“No, Goodnight said. “I don’t attend hangings, although I’ve presided over some, of the homegrown sort. This is the longest conversation I’ve had in ten years. Goodbye.” (page 935)

I find this howlingly funny. This is probably too pat of a read on it, but I wonder if this scene is some kind of commentary on the gap between cowboys in reality, and cowboys in fiction? Call is mostly taciturn himself, but even he has a delightfully pungent way of speaking, and probably talked a sight more than real cattlemen like Goodnight. Volume of talk aside, he was almost assuredly more eloquent.

Lonesome Dove has an unproduced screenplay as its distant predecessor, and McMurtry has been tied up in Hollywood for many years, so it’s no surprise that the dialog in Lonesome Dove is plentiful and excellent, and behind one other element (which it is intimately linked to) is the presiding thing that lingers in my mind. Here’s a representative example taken, in the tradition pioneered by the inimitable GreatSFandF.com, more or less at random:

“I couldn’t hear Jehovah’s trumpet from no five miles off,” Augustus said. “Anyway, we ain’t the only thing in this country that can spook cattle. A lobo wolf can spook them, or a lion.”

“I didn’t ask for a speech,” Call said. “It’s foolish to take chances.”

“Some might think it foolish to try and steal horses from the best-armed ranch in Northern Mexico,” Augustus said. “Pedro must work about a hundred vaqueros.”

“Yes, but they’re spread around, and most of them can’t shoot,” Call said.

“Most of us can’t either,” Augustus said. “Dish and Newt ain’t never spilt blood, and one of ‘em’s drunk anyway.”

“Gus, you’d talk to a possum,” Jake said.

“I wisht we had one along,” Augustus said. “I’ve seen possums that could outthink this crowd.” (page 115)

So, Augustus McCrae. On at least one level the entire book is about Gus. I didn’t know this before researching the book but Gus has strode right into the same romantic, mythic empyrean where Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and other well-loved murderers go to be immortal.

Calling Gus a murderer does him some degree of disservice, I guess. But he does kill the most people throughout the book.

Anyway, an excellent article by John Spong at Texas Monthly compiles memories from many different people involved in the Lonesome Dove universe. One memory from Steven Davis, assistant curator at Texas State’s Southwestern Writer’s Collection, describes some folks’ reaction to the prop of Gus’s dead body from the miniseries:

The exhibit draws people from all over the world, and when they see the prop of Gus’s dead body, it makes some of them weep all over again. I’ve seen people drop to their knees and pray.”

Friends, that is fuckin’ nuts. But the image of people weeping over this dead Gus prop in a museum of sorts dedicated to Lonesome Dove speaks to the contradiction at its heart. Despite its purported revisionist aims, Lonesome Dove still romanticizes the West.

I think a lot of the romance comes from Gus. Semi-educated, intelligent, sensitive, witty, talkative, romantic, with an appetite for life and everything in it, an espouser of homey-sounding apothegms about seizing the day etc., a profoundly talented fighter with incredible eyesight, Gus is, simply, larger than life. People like him may have existed, but I’ve never met any, and I doubt any of them were cowboys.

A note: one weird trait that Gus shares with Judge Holden from Blood Meridian: he enjoys being naked and is comfortable being naked around the cowboys.

Undoubtedly, Gus is a great character, an absolute delight. But he’s also an improbable one, and I think to a degree he sabotages the intent of the book. If you want to deflate the cowboy mythos, why make the central character one of the most improbably charming and cool cowboys that ever existed?

 

Image Credit: The Sid Richardson Museum Blog. Cover art by Shannon Stirnweis.