Saturday, April 30, 2005

Books Read in April

Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky

The classic novella from one of the greatest writers ever. A two-hour read, and well worth it, if only because of its status. The dinner scene in which the nameless narrator gets drunk and embarrasses himself is one of my favorites in all of literature. I recommend the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Not as good as his wife's book (The History of Love, listed below), but original and worth reading. The first serious fiction to center itself around the tragedy and aftermath of 9/11. The primary narrator, Oskar Schell, doesn't deserve the Huck Finn comparisons some have given him, but he is an original and entertaining American kid nonetheless. I suggest reading this and The History of Love back-to-back. Krauss and Safran Foer are clearly literature's new first couple.

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

A wonderful story about Leo Gursky, an aging and morbid man who knows nothing of the impact he's left on the world, and Alma, a fourteen-year-old girl who is testament to that impact and who is also every bit as original and compelling - and not quite as annoying - as Safran Foer's Oskar (see above). At times tender and tragic, at other times laugh-out-loud funny, this book, with its tones that seem soft and loud at the same time, reminds me of a yelled whisper, or a muted cymbal clap. Indeed, both the story in the book and the book itself contain this characteristic of being quietly loud: in the former case, when dealing in the narrative with the expanse and effects of love and literature; in the latter case, when arguing for its place on the modern literary bookshelf. In both instances, the passionately subdued style pays off. A fresh voice is added to the eternal conversation on love and loss and the power of writing, and we have another fine book for our bookshelf. (I find Krauss fits very snugly between Barbara Kingsolver and Maxine Kumin.)

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

The first book in seven years by the author of Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy. Will be reviewed for July. Due in stores July 19th.

Mary, Vladimir Nabokov

The first novel by my favorite author, written some 80 years ago. A very straightforward story about a soldier living in a pension in Germany with a handful of comical Russian emigres. A rather simple book, given Nabokov's reputation for trickery and wordplay - gives no indication of the literary genius that would later produce Lolita and Pale Fire (both of which are regularly included among the best books of the 20th Century), and is even at times a slow read. Worth it, however, if you like the author's later work. It is interesting to see how some of the themes common in his writing, such as displacement and love, were first expressed.

Spanking the Maid, Robert Coover

The only book of Coover's to make Harold Bloom's western canon. I think other Coover books are at least as good as this one, if not better, but I won't fuss. Bloom is one man with one opinion, and we could debate his selections forever. This very fine literary novella revolves around the daily routines of a master and his maid. Each morning, the maid enters the master's bedroom with the intention of finally achieving perfection in her work. The master, haunted every night by nightmares, is forced to discipline her when she fails. I won't say any more for fear of taking the enjoyment out of this sinister tale, except to tell you that things get worse and worse...and the master and his maid might even enjoy it.

Lady into Fox, David Garnett

The second straight McSweeney's publication I've read that's been great (see this month's review of Stepmother for the other one) - I was getting scared they were moving in the wrong direction, but perhaps I was wrong. At any rate, this publication - a resurrection of a 1922 novel by David Garnett, who slept his way into the famous Bloomsbury Group (and then married that lover's daughter, who was also a member) - is a great read whether you seek literary satisfaction or quick entertainment. The story is that of a man whose wife turns into a fox, and the struggles - social, sexual, religious, etc. - that he endures as he copes with his wife's new form. As his wife gets closer and closer to the true nature of a fox - that is, wilder and wilder, by a human's estimation - his struggles intensify. The book reads something like a fable, but feel no need to derive a moral from this story. It is simply fun storytelling, and quick, too. It's another novella - I've read a few in this form this month - and would be perfect for a short plane ride or a long lunch.


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