What I Read

15 06 2010

Apropos of David Fishkind’s reading round-up, here are the books I read recently and some thoughts on each:

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
I really enjoyed this book. I read it because Tao Lin said it’s one of his favorite books. I had previously read Wide Sargasso Sea by Rhys for a class in college and wasn’t that excited about it. This book reminded me a bit, in its prose style, of The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which makes sense since Ford was her mentor and then her lover at one point. The attitude of the narrator and the voice of the book, the feelings it gave me, seemed unique and very exciting to me. I was impressed by how the book followed everyday, fairly undramatic events in the life of the protagonist, didn’t have much of a conventional plot at all, and yet felt “shaped” and was very pleasing in its form. And I loved how honest and funny and emotional the narrator was. I was moved by the book, and then I read Reader’s Block by David Markson [discussed below], and he includes this passage, which moved me again: “Decades afterward, locked indelibly in Reader’s mind: the last two pages of Good Morning, Midnight.” It really does seem like the kind of book with the kind of ending you never forget.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I never had to read this book for class and felt like I “should” read it, since it’s such a classic and always sounded like an idiosyncratic, interesting book. I was impressed by the prose and the near-constant wit/humor of the book. It felt like a loquacious dandy with a great, dark sense of humor and an outrageous control of the English language was regaling me at length by a fireplace over glasses of wine or some shit. At times, as I got further into the book, I sort of wondered how to “feel about” the performance of it all, like the fact that Nabokov was keeping up this incredibly lush prose style for pages and pages and it seemed to be for its own sake. But maybe not. Not really sure what to think about “showing off” in literature, at this point. I guess everyone is who they are and they write how they want to write, and the reader likes it or doesn’t. I liked this, it’s just the prose style kept me at arm’s length and seemed artificial in the sense that it didn’t necessarily illuminate character or reveal Nabokov, it just was a means of making the book “delightful” for people who “like this sort of thing.” Whereas, I would say that Joyce, whose Ulysses is referenced twice or maybe three times in the book, and which Nabokov greatly admired, I think Joyce makes me feel closer to his characters with his prose style choices, and I think by the end of Ulysses I felt like I knew Joyce better and was “closer” to him, whereas by the end of Lolita I felt impressed and engaged and aware of some passion that Nabokov is gesturing at, but unsure of who Nabokov is or why he bothered writing the book. To use a metaphor, surely something Nabokov uses, Lolita seems a red jewelbox (coffin) with carefully painted butterflies; Ulysses is like a great ark filled to bursting with water, and out rushing comes Dublin and its people with their slippery thoughts and beating hearts.

Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie
I also read this one on Tao Lin’s recommendation. I really loved it. I found it moving and very funny. The book is mostly dialogue, and I felt like I was watching a really great movie with great characters. The main character, Charles, was very easy for me to identify with, because he is hopelessly fixated on a girl, Laura, and can’t get over her or function very well in everyday life because he’s always thinking about her. I found Charles very charming and funny. The other characters are great too. I won’t list them off, but it’s a great cast of characters. I could see how the deadpan humor, with occasional touches of absurdity, could have been an influence on Tao’s writing. The last thing I want to say about the book is that Ann Beattie excels at small beautiful moments conveyed through concrete events and things rather than bald statements or philosophical musings. There’s a passage where Charles describes the life, the places and things and events, that he imagines him and Laura sharing had she not gotten married to someone else. Then without pause comes a list of the events and little specific details of the time they really did spend together, and I don’t know why, but it brought me to tears.

Reader’s Block by David Markson
I had already read Wittgenstein’s Mistress by Markson and enjoyed it, and after he died, I was inspired to go out and buy some more of his books to read. I enjoyed this one too, but it seemed more detached than Mistress. That one had a central character around whom the book revolved, and this one is supposed to be vaguely concerning a character referred to as Reader, or Protagonist, but mostly it seems to just be Markson riffing on various ideas and artistic history in an intricate, patterned way, with very little sense of a character’s presence or actions or environment. Which is fine and interesting to read, because he picks such great anecdotes and he has an interesting mind, but it didn’t really move me. So not really a complaint even, just saying. Markson might be disappointed if many people felt that way, though, because he stated that he wanted to move readers, and his main influence was Joyce, who was definitely a mover, so to speak. Still a very worthwhile book, and I will probably read most of his other books as well.

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys
I really enjoyed this too. It seems even darker and more despairing than Good Morning, Midnight, perhaps. It shifts between the characters’ viewpoints a bit which was interesting, although I wasn’t quite sure “why” this was being done, other than I guess, author’s prerogative. Doesn’t matter. The interactions between the characters, especially the ugly interactions, felt very real to me and seemed to reveal the craziness of human emotions when people are desperate or at odds or not getting what they want in a way that was surprising and exciting to me. The protagonist felt not dissimilar to the one in Good Morning, which made me think (and hope) that both are basically Jean Rhys. If so, I really like Jean Rhys, as a person. She is very honest and emotional and confused and funny, and I like her.

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3 responses

16 06 2010
Brett

I really enjoyed this, Stephen. Jean Rhys was an author I read voraciously after seeing her mentioned by Tao and I would say her novels have been some of the most enjoyable and engrossing reads that I have come across in a while. I have been meaning to read Ann Beattie, too, and I think that CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER will definitely be added to my ‘summer reading’.

16 06 2010
desario71

cool, man. yeah, i highly recommend “chilly scenes of winter.”

16 08 2010
BBC News has become our ‘inner cynic’

[…] Mr Mackenzie – one thing I love about the digital age is coming across other people who are reading the same books as […]

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