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.

20 Tasteful Book/Environment Pairings for the Aesthetically-Inclined Reader

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I should – and intend to, at some point – continue to process my thoughts on Lonesome Dove. But today it’s cold, or more specifically I’m cold, so cold the backs of my hands feel like they’re being gently grazed with steel wool or a sparking livewire. So cold that writing about a dusty, sweaty book like Lonesome Dove seems weird.

And it was a weird time for me to read Lonesome Dove: during the last sad remaindered weeks of Ohio winter. It only snows once or twice during Lonesome Dove, towards the end when they reach Montana – and it comes across (mostly) as an otherworldly novelty to the cowboys, not the monotonous threnody that it is here.

I’m able to – and mostly do – read what I want regardless of the season, weather, locale, time of day or night. Unless you want to be a demoniacally arcane and prescriptive reader you have to accept that you’ll never always synchronize the aesthetic of a book to the aesthetic of the world outside.

But that interplay between the two is a real thing, and generates real alchemies inside your brain. In Heian Japan they knew (and by ‘they’ I mean ‘the nobility;’ and by ‘knew’ I mean ‘had the undeserved luxury to know’) that aesthetics were everywhere, that in some way most of a life could be lived artistically; that sitting in a particular spot, at a particular time of the day and year, looking out over a particular landscape with a particular weather cast over it, and reading a particular poem could, in fact, deepen the aesthetic impact of that poem.

All art creates its own world, but as we experience it by bringing it into our individual minds, it mixes with the experience of reality past and present kept there (because art’s made of the same stuff, ultimately, even if it is refined, distilled, altered, organized, given structure), and can develop additional deepnesses & resonances from that commingling, incorporating the unformed aesthetic of lived reality into its own architecture.

Here: some notes on possible book/environment combinations that may deepen the impact of the work itself, but also may not, because each of us develop our own correspondences between things and yours may be – probably are – completely different.

There’s a Mystery sub-genre called ‘Cozy Mystery,’ presumably because they’re ideal for hearthside winter evenings.

Moonwise, by Greer Ilene Gilman – winter book through and through. Wouldn’t read this one in summer. I’ve tried, but it didn’t work. You have to wait.

When I was in high school my cousin told me that On the Road is strictly a summer book,  and to wait till then to read it; unintentionally condemning Kerouac’s book to years of waiting itself, standing on ugly gray carpet under ugly fluorescent lights, waiting in the endless shifting line of my inner literary bureaucracy for conditions to align so that it can be processed.

Proust is often described as autumnal, and I can see that; but I seem to remember starting In Search of Lost Time in the spring, and finishing it on a late summer evening. And my favorite volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, is most definitely a summer book.

Find a good stretch of sultry days for Ulysses, the June book. Read the early chapters in the morning, salivate over Bloom’s kidney breakfast as you prepare your own matutinal meal.

Lolita: a summer book for sure; Pale Fire an autumn one. There’s something inherently literary about Appalachia in the fall. But maybe don’t read either of these; I’ve had a years-long ice cream headache from Nabokov’s fatty, rich prose – it gave me cavities. And yet in my memory it lacks a certain something; David Markson describes Nabokov’s style as ‘pinchbeck,’ and I’m currently inclined to agree. So just read Wittgenstein’s Mistress instead, alone in a cabin on a wintry beach – you kind of have to roleplay for this one.

You should read The Book of the New Sun in the summer. Summer is the season for all Dying Earth media. But also, just generally read The Book of the New Sun.

Peace, also by Gene Wolfe, is October only. You really ought to time it so that you finish it during the afternoon on Halloween, before it gets dark.

Last Good Kiss by James Crumley takes some even preciser timing: late summer only, heavy summer, when the sky seems stark white even when it’s cloudless; after the merciless beatdown of the dog days, when the weather is hovers between continuing late summer’s madness or commencing its own death with the onset of fall. (N.B.: you should also be on the road for the duration of the reading).

Read Misery in the winter (I didn’t).

I remember The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle taking place in the summer. I read it last year – or maybe the year before. There’s something about this book, and Murakami’s prose, that isolates itself from particular flavors, specific resonances; it’s sterile in a way that I can’t decide if I like or not – but it’s probably a summer book regardless.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page G.B. Edwards: early autumn, preferably during a stretch of wet but not unpleasantly so weather. And really you ought to be in Guernsey.

Dracula would work best as a box of documents to be sorted through. A box of evidence. Like the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society did with “The Call of Cthulhu” and the Angell Box. Give me the Stoker Files.

I wish I’d read Foucault’s Pendulum during the summer, in a rainy city. I’d walk to the subway, avoiding puddles and people, and cram in some fevered reading during my transit. Urban life seems like the corresponding madness to the madness of this book – which is, to be honest, at least a partially feigned madness. I need to return to this one because I’m not sure what to think of it still.

Nightwood, naturally, needs the night. 

And The Tale of Genji is, indeed, best read in autumn.

The tone of Lord of the Rings: ancient, mystic, Yuleish. It seems older than it is, and so it should be read in winter. The first time. But then read it in each other season, to extract different colors and tones from Middle Earth.

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman: required reading during wet, cold, miserable falls.

Who wouldn’t want to read Wuthering Heights on a wind-lashed night in northern country, with the wind lashing the earth’s bare back and the trees swaying in unison, urging on the flagellation?

What I am currently reading now is 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. For me, this one is tied to time, not season; it’s best read at night – although now that I think about it I think summer nights would work best. And like most big books, I find it to make particularly good reading when I’m a little bit abstracted. The capaciousness of these bigger books allows them to let all of that abstraction and nervous energy in. There’s room for lots.

This is my second crack at 2666, which I bought when it was new, riding into North America on cataclysmic hype. At the time, I started it and got through Parts 1 & 2, but abandoned it. This time, less than a week in, I’ve already caught up to where I left off, and am positive I will finish it this time.

Image Credit: Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725 – 1770)

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.