The Magic Barrel – 5/5 Stars
This story collection came out in 1959 and contains the well known title story, but also has several other very good stories. It won the National Book Award as well. As I have previously stated in reviews, the age of the writer (here in a kind of debut effort) lends itself to an already mature and thoughtful work (this was also true for many of Raymond Chandler’s stories as well as the story collection A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley). The result here is several stories that know what they’re doing and have a tight focus, no precociousness or amateurish qualities, and strong writing.
The bulk of the stories take place in New York City, Italy, or other other post WWII cities and generally involve Jewish characters. The Italian stories are interesting as well because they are the longest individual stories and often deal with Jewishness in a way, but more so with the insularity of Americans, who spent a lot of lives and resources in the war, but didn’t have to defend their own territory or sacrifice cities and buildings. The relative arrogance of Americans tends to be one of the primary subjects.
But I can’t recommend the title story enough. In it, a young rabbinical student goes to a matchmaker who keeps his profiles of would-be matches in a “magic barrel” for the right candidate to come along. He selects and then shapes his definitions of these women and their lives for the candidate. There’s a clear veneer of salesmanship and softening of the truth in his descriptions: ages are rounded down or “misstated”; being a widow is definitely not a negative, and is even a positive. And so the results are a distrust between the candidate and the matchmaker. The story is very funny and charming, and more so, feels so very much like someone discussing online dating that there’s a funny looping back to contemporary life that feels fresh. A writer could have written a story like this today to illustrate some timelessness of themes about this kind of dating, but Malamud did it accidentally.
Elric of Melnibone – 3/5 Stars
This is a fantasy novel written in 1970 and shares a lot of similarities to the kinds of early fantasy novels coming out in the time period. Not the least of all is this main character super smart, super compassionate, damaged physically, a great warrior, and a great king. But these are obvious limitations too. This novel is strange to me for a lot of other reasons. So the basic idea here is that you have a super dominant island country that outnumbers and outwars all of its neighbors. They are both deeply barbaric in their nature (using the word as a synonym for savage, not getting into the original definition) and they require a vicious and strong leader. They have Elric, however, who is compassionate and interested in reform, but is also quite capable and just. He’s a kind of barbarian King Arthur in a way. And because this is early fantasy (of this type) there’s a lot of throwbacks to Tarzan and Conan and other 1940s and 1950s adventure stories.
Its biggest flaw is the same kind of thing I would say about Earthsea books (and did say them!) is that for a book that is 181 pages….soooooooo much plot happens. There’s huge time jumps, there’s big world/distance jumps….we’re learning the history and culture of Melnibone….and it all happens so fast. The only reason I cared at all really is that a) I was listening to the audiobook and it was easy to keep going and b) Elric is the protagonist. There’s no concern whatsoever for figuring out the best pacing for this novel. I realize he went on the write twelve of these books, but if the pacing is the same throughout, so much will happen, and I wouldn’t care about almost any of it, because there’s barely time for one thing to resolve and another to come on. I think about how much more balanced a lot of fantasy novels or fantasy series are now, where things take time and are slowed down.
The Humbling – 1/5 Stars
I am not automatically one to defend Philip Roth, in general. But I do think that he’s written a lot of very good novels, and some of his very biggest critics have likely never read any of them. It’s received wisdom to hate him for his hatred of women. There’s also a kind go-to recognition that he’s not even a good writer. I think this is false though and that he is often a good writer.
This, however, is a very bad novel. It’s bad for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s deeply offensive and reductive in its treatment of both suicide and women and transgender people. It’s a shame too, because I think this is his last novel, and not far removed from a very good novel that included very sympathetic female characters.
So here are the women in this novel: a manipulative lesbian who jumps in and out of relationships with men and women and talks about wasting 17 years of her life with women. There’s a college dean who only gave a job to this woman because she slept with her. There’s a mother who doesn’t trust the lead character (a man) and therefor is treated with disdain. There’s a woman who comes out as trans and is repeatedly mocked and derided. And there’s a drunk woman in a bar who gets manipulated into a threesome.
All of these portrayals could exist in good novels, but the tone of this book is sneering and cynical and boring in its baldness.
The book that could have been good is about the lead character, an older actor whose lost his talent. That’s interesting and great, but a) Philip Roth already wrote a good novel about that Sabbath’s Theater and B) the above version with the vileness was also already a brilliant novel by Iris Murdoch: The Sea The Sea.
So while I often like Roth, this fails at every level.
Joe Gould’s Teeth – 4/5 Stars
This is a very good and interesting look into a very bad man. Jill Lepore surprised me with this book because she led with the most interesting aspects of Joe Gould, a failed or unpublished writer I have never heard of, made me very intrigued, and then slowly pulled back the curtain to reveal a truly vile person whose behaviors are so familiar. There’s a contemporary and satisfying criticism running through this book that helps contextualize the myth of the difficult genius.
So Gould was a New York reporter who for decades claimed to be writing (and maybe was — it remains unclear) an oral history of the United States, and is sort of credited for coming up with the term and the idea of oral histories. He reportedly filled up dozens of boxes with hundreds of notebooks of his writing. The writing was supposedly of an anthropological bent but there’s apparently a lot of memoir and stream of consciousness writing mixed in. This project was the subject of a lot of interest from other (actually working and publishing writers) like ee cummings, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and William Saroyan, and he’s a kind of folk hero. Minus the output, he strikes me as a lot like Burroughs and Norman Mailer and Bukowski in his various nature, but also in his way of attracting followers.
Lepore very early on though reveals a considerably dark side to all this: he was a racial nightmare of a person. She quotes extensively from his racist and eugenicist ideologies, and while he’s definitely those things, Lepore also states her analysis that his opinions sound like someone not necessarily of deep-held beliefs but of rejection.
She then goes on to talk about his decades long harassment of a Black woman working as a literary editor during the 1930s who rejected Gould’s romantic (and sexually violent) aspirations and suggests this inspired his horrendous views.
This is a text that works not as a polemic, but as a kind of analysis of a myth, by the addition of facts and context.
The Maltese Falcon – 4/5 Stars
I thought I had read this one before, and even gave it a rating on Goodreads. It became clear as I was “rereading” it that what had happened was that I have definitely read The Big Sleep and confused them.
Well, I know what you’re thinking: vel veeter! these aren’t even written by the same guys. I know! But there’s two movies, both starring Humphrey Bogart — as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and I have seen both of those and read The Big Sleep. And Humphrey Bogart has no business playing either detective. No matter how good of an actor he is (sometimes very, sometimes not very), these detectives are so much different from each other. I was working on a project in college about William Faulkner’s Hollywood writing days, and he wrote the script for The Big Sleep. But years later I thought I had read this while working on a project about masculinity in noir fiction. But perhaps not.
Also this book is pretty silly in some ways, and the movie is even sillier. It’s brilliant too, in its own ways. Sam Spade and his partner Miles Archer take a case and Archer is immediately killed while working it. It seems like their mark killed Archer and then someone killed him. Spade gets falsely implicated in both murders, for different motives, by different people. He then becomes embroiled in a connected plot to find the Maltese Falcon — a totem that really doesn’t do anything, but is worth some amount of money. It’s the original or perhaps the quintessential MacGuffin.
The novel is told through a third person that sticks pretty close to Spade. Spade is not a good guy, and maybe that’s why he’s kept to a single novel.
How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – 4/5 Stars
I have a thing for Mohsin Hamid novels it turns out. I started reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist a few years back and had previously avoided it because I was worried about what it might be like or be about. I ended up liking it a lot, and I still think it has some cheesy/cringey writing elements to it. It’s written in a kind of conversational tone in a kind of first person second person blend. What I mean by this is that there’s a clear first person character and narrator telling you the story, but he’s telling it to you, as a foreign visitor to his city, and who you are becomes increasingly clear as the novel progresses. It mostly works, is definitely a little cheesy, but I liked it.
This novel has a similar device to it. It’s written as a self-help guidebook in a metafictional way. It knows what it is and knows whether it’s doing a good job. And it’s tell you how to succeed as a businessman in a south Asian country, but it’s also a kind of second-person telling as well.
Again, it’s kind of cheesy, but it also works for me.
The story begins decades ago, or maybe with decades ahead. You and your family are not well off, you’re smart and capable, and looking for advancement through education and hard work. It turns out that the system is fucked and bribery and corruption are a significant part of everything, and so there’s not good reason to play fair.
As the story goes on, you keep making more and more corrupt choices, though never anything truly terrible or criminal, and instead of the success you’re looking for, it creates isolation and alienation instead. It turns out that bending morality doesn’t work as well as utterly disregarding it, and if you’re still trying to live a life of integrity, you can’t do both.
Happy Endings – No Rating
So this is a collection of Dark Horse shorts from 2002. Why did I read this? Well, I won it as a prize for Cannonball Bingo. It’s a neat little anthology collection with a lot of well-known writers (both very known like Joe Sacco, Harvey Pekar, Frank Miller — and would be well known later writers like Craig Thompson).
Given that it’s a showcase of talent and works along the theme of “Happy Endings” the results are mixed. These are VERY short comics (5-6 pages max) and so it’s hard to have much to say at all. I am also not the greatest audience for this kind of work because as a form, I am not well studied. I like good stories and good writing, but when things get a little abstract, I can never tell what works and what doesn’t.
But the cool thing was looking through it and finding all the different writers who ended up signing this copy. Since it was a prize from Cannonball Bingo, there were a lot of signees. So the upside of all this is that Harvey Pekar and not Frank Miller signed it: win-win.
Embroideries – No Rating
I won’t rate this one either because it’s a charming book that’s funny and bright, but it’s also a small book. So no matter what rating I gave it, it would feel weird using my embedded rubric to rate something that I thought looked interesting but isn’t my typical fair.
If you liked Persepolis, you will like this one, and maybe more so. Years ago, a friend of mine who has a Lebanese dad and a white American mother tried to get me to move to Lebanon. Not with her, just because I was a little listless. She was telling me how much fun I would have and how much more progressive and cosmopolitan it is versus what it seems. I am sure she’s right, but I averred and didn’t go.
This book sort of works in the spaces like she was describing. There’s a myth (true or not) that Victorian England was not so strait-laced as it seems in picture and books because of the physical limitations of cameras and how it’s easier to not smile for a five minute exposure than to try to hold a consistent one. And of course books had propriety laws governing them.
Anyway, this book takes places among a group of Persian women discussing sex behind closed doors with no men around.
It’s a really funny book about confronting a conservative outward facing culture and the hidden liberalities that sex and marriage bring to it.
Fox 8 – No Rating
Kind of this book is very charming and also kind of fuck this book.
So the writing of this book is cute and charming. It’s written as a kind of fable or openletter from a fox (fox 8) to us humans (yumans). He apologizes repeatedly for his language and grammar, and his cultural differences and style are very different. And then the story goes on and is about he and his fox friends finding a mall and getting in trouble there. There’s also about 5 illustrations throughout.
This is a short story with some drawings and it’s on sale for $17. Fuck that.
DA – No rating
There’s a new collection of Connie Willis novellas for sale. I highly recommend it in general. All three are older, and none of them are really in print any more. So for the price of one book you get two books and a longish short story (called here a novella, but it’s just not one).
Anyway, this is just a review of that last story.
In the story, there’s a highly competitive high school where the different students are looking to get into the college of their choices, but also into the space academy. There’s a very limited number of spots and everyone knows that one person from their school is to be chosen.
One does. Only thing is, Theodora didn’t actually apply. So the rest of the story is her trying to figure out how this happens.
It’s a charming little story, that could be a much better short novel or series of novellas.
Snowpiercer vol 1 – 3/5 Stars
The art and tone of this graphic novel are significantly different from that of the film. If like me you are more familiar with the film, that everyone on this train is white and French is a bit of a let down. Maybe that’s not exactly the case, but it seems to be. The art is quite good, in its way — black and white, spare, good use of shadow. But it’s also not particularly inventive. There’s a lot of narration in this book to handle what I feel the art itself should be doing.
It’s also a very 1980s looking book. While the social commentary about the welfare state and late capitalism are all there, there’s not a specific and engaging conflict and tension that had led to this kind of dystopia. I like that the book does very little to explain context except to say that’s just how it is.
But it’s the launching of the series, but looking it up now, I see that there are only two books, which feels like an underwhelming amount given how little actually happens in this one.
(Photo: https://www.bookreporter.com/authors/jacques-lob-; https://www.bedetheque.com/auteur-432-BD-Rochette-Jean-Marc.html)
Tinkers – 2/5 Stars
I didn’t find this book to be very compelling. I finished it and it was fine, but over all, I didn’t have much impression of it whatsoever. It came off pretty strongly as derivative of Marilynne Robinson and Wallace Stegner, and concerned a father and son and their various interactions in a small New England town over the course of several decades. The writing, like the plot and the book itself, were relatively spare.
I don’t know the other books that were nominated for the Pulitzer that year, but looking at the National Book Award, the two winners that bookended this book were also pretty weak. Maybe the first two years of Obama’s presidency just didn’t inspire the kind of fiction that stand out for me.