06 April 2009

Short Notes on Various Books

One thing I love about blogs is seeing people discover books that have become so much a part of my own life that I develop the sense that everybody else on Earth has also read them, and so there's no need for me to talk about them, because we all know these are great books, right? It's nice to be reminded that this is a fantasy -- nice to see people suddenly fall in love with books I've known for a little while already.

The great and glorious Anne Fernald just posted a list of some books she's read lately with joy and happiness, and the two books on the list that I've read are ones I recommend without reservation: Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana and Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys.

I first heard about Tropical Fish when I was in Kenya for the SLS/Kwani conference and Doreen Baingana was part of a panel discussion; I found her captivating. Later, a Ugandan friend (who also told me about FEMRITE) exhorted me to read the book. I did. I exhort you to do the same.

I don't remember when I stumbled upon Good Morning, Midnight -- I feel like the battered, crumpled paperback I've got has been with me for years, but I know I read it only a handful of years ago. Few other books have affected the prose of my own writing as deeply. Much of what I've written, and even some of what I've published, I could call my pre-Rhys writing -- aspiring toward a sort of lyricism that now I have little interest in. Good Morning, Midnight offers, to my eye's ear, a prose that I would rank in its stark, precise beauty with that of Paul Bowles, J.M. Coetzee, and even, to some extent, Beckett.

Meanwhile, much like Anne, I've been reading a lot without writing about it. I've felt like I either didn't have much to say about what I've read, or what I'd have to say has already been said by plenty of people. Here, though, are some quick thoughts on some of what I've read over the last few weeks:

I was looking forward to Jedediah Berry's first novel, The Manual of Detection, with so much excitement that I may have slaughtered it with expectations. Some of Jed's short stories are among my favorites of recent years, and I had high hopes for the novel, but those hopes were never quite met. It was a brisk and sometimes exhilarating read, but ultimately felt whispy to me, especially in the last third, from which I ached for much more. Much more what? I don't know. But more.

Similarly, I think Brian Evenson is one of the better contemporary American writers, and so my hopes for his new novel, Last Days, were unreasonably high. It's an interesting and sometimes harrowing book, but again I wasn't satisfied with it in the last third or so. (Matt Bell has written a comprehensive and thoughtful take on the novel here.) It's not that I didn't like either The Manual of Detection or Last Days -- I read them both, and neither ever really felt like a slog to get through -- but both left me unsatisfied, yearning for more complexity and depth and nuance and implication.

Then one day the mail brought both The Letters of Noël Coward and The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940. I wondered what the mail gods were trying to tell me (one friend replied, when I mentioned the coincidence: "I think it means you are either: an absurd gayist ... or a flamboyant abusrdist. Possibly both." I'll try for both). The Coward was a review copy, the Beckett a book I splurged on for myself. I tried reading the former for a bit, because I do have a certain weakness for good ol' Noël, but the letters are presented amidst a narrative of Coward's life, and I found it annoying, so couldn't continue.

The Beckett is a masterpiece of editing, a feat of scholarship, and utterly fascinating. I devoured half of the big book in only a few days (then stopped, ready to go again on the second half very soon). Gabriel Josipovici reviewed it, so I have nothing else to say.

Partly because of my "Murder, Madness, Mayhem" class, I happened to read some Robert Aickman stories and became obsessed. I had last read Aickman when I was about 17 or so, and I had hated his stories. I thought they were the most boring, pointless things ever written by any human being ever, ever, ever. Ahhh, youth! "The Hospice" and "The Stains" are now stories I am simply in awe of. I quickly hunted up the only two relatively affordable Aickman collections available on the used book market: Cold Hand in Mine and Painted Devils. They are full of exactly what Aickman says they are full of: strange stories. Beautifully, alarmingly strange stories.

Someone should publish an affordable paperback of Aickman's selected (or, be still my heart, collected!) stories. Tartarus Press published a two-volume collected stories, but it's going for at least $700 these days, and though I love Aickman, I can't spend $700 on him. Thus, I implore the publishing world to relieve my yearning and reprint a collection or two or eight of Aickman's stories in inexpensive editions! Someone? Anyone? Please? NYRB Books, I'm looking at you right now.....

Wanting to read some nonfiction about Aickman, I borrowed S.T. Joshi's The Modern Weird Tale: A Critique of Horror Fiction from a library and read the fairly astute chapter on Aickman. But I have to admit, my first thought on reading various parts of Joshi's book was, "What crawled up this guy's ass and died?" I know some people have thought the same about things I've written, so I didn't hold it against him. I was curious how Joshi is perceived within the horror community, though, because his rants against writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub seem so over-the-top to me that they actually work better as humor than as criticism, and he sometimes seems to get angry at writers for not fitting into his own narrow categories, for not agreeing with his (Lovecraftian) view of the universe, for not being more, well, Joshian. He has some fascinating things to say, but also ... not. Is he the Ezra Pound of genre criticism? The Cimmerian quotes Joel Lane (whose short stories I like quite a bit):
[Joshi's] Lovecraft biography is a serious classic. Joshi’s recent book The Modern Weird Tale is a mixed bag, highly idiosyncratic and unfair, but full of good insights. His new book The Evolution of the Weird Tale, despite its grand title, is basically a collection of review articles; but it’s enormous fun and less narrow than some earlier Joshi stuff. The Weird Tale, published in 1990 and covering the weird fiction genre from Machen to Lovecraft, is ambitious and dynamic but heavy-handed and too fond of extreme statements. Behind the veils of academic objectivity, Joshi can be seen to be a volatile, short-tempered, aggressive and highly intense young man. He has mellowed a little since, though his sarcasm can still wither at forty paces.
As I prepared my class to watch an episode of Dexter, I read around in Jack the Ripper and the London Press by L. Perry Curtis, Jr. and Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture by David Schmid -- both well worth reading, rich with insights.

Nowadays, I'm mostly doing research about British imperialism and its connection to mystery and adventure fiction. Fascinating stuff, which will, I hope, bring a new project to fruition...

5 comments:

  1. I once made some notes (and they are nothing more than jottings and comparisons, some in abbreviated references when I feared my computer was about to die) on Aickman as a middle-class conservative alert to the decline of post-imperial Britain. That while he shares many of the concerns and tastes of John Betjeman and co, he is otherwise his spiritual negative.

    http://ukjarry.livejournal.com/530.html

    and an afterthought
    http://ukjarry.livejournal.com/917.html

    I doubt much of it will make sense but there might be something suggestive amidst the clutter

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  2. I've liked Aickman ever since I first read him, but that's probably because this was only a couple of years ago. I drool at the idea of the Tartarus volumes, but I can't afford them. Thankfully, there are Faber editions. I've yet to buy those myself though.

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  3. Joshi is one of those "if he didn't exist we'd have to invent him" sorts.

    He's also grown fonder of Straub's work recently.

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  4. I'd be interested to know if you don't care for lyrical prose any more at all (naturally, I mean well-written lyrical prose) - your reasons - or whether you're just no longer interested in writing it yourself. I feel I'm approaching a similar watershed, maybe.

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  5. Haha... I know what you mean about Joshi. Overall, I like his book, The Modern Weird Tale, but I must say - one of my coworkers has been trying to get me to read Stephen King for the past year. "Bill," he says, "I don't see why you don't try to write more like Stephen King. You would have a much wider audience!"

    Years ago, I read Carrie for a college class in Pop Literature, and it was okay, I guess, but nothing special. So finally, at my friends urging, I recently started reading The Dreamcatcher. King is actually a skilled writer. He paints a vivid, uncluttered word picture. I have to give the man credit where credit is due.

    Of course, for me to "write more like Stephen King", as I explained to my friend at work, is not the way to go. I'm always noting little "tricks" used by every writer I read, from Hemingway to VanderMeer, so yeah, I might learn something from King. But I have to write what I would want to read. It's the only way. If one tries to be too pop, the literary crowd will say "shallow" and if one tries to be too deep, the pop crowd will say "pretentious", so in the end, you have to be yourself.

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