Richard Brautigan, Dreaming of Babylon
Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War
Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
Yevgeny Zamyatin, A Soviet Heretic
Stefan Zweig, Messages from a Lost World
Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree
Dennis Lehane, Mystic River
Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle
The Polysyllabic Spree was low-hanging fruit, as I read 95% of it last month. The other two books that I finished in May were both Hornby recommendations, and both were extremely readable. Walls’ memoir of her absolutely bonkers childhood was a blast from start to finish; I can recommend it without hesitation.
As for Lehane’s book… it was certainly a page-turner. I’m tempted to call it a thriller with literary pretensions, which is probably a bit more dismissive than it deserves. Lehane can really write, and is good with characters and plot; but he’s also trying to make some larger sociopolitical point that is a bit muddled. I don’t regret the time I spent with Mystic River, but nor would I push it on anyone.
This is my second attempt at the Bruce Chatwin book, which is one of those that makes me feel inadequate as a reader. Before last summer I had read about Chatwin but never read him; then The Songlines turned up in the free box at my favorite cafe. My first stab at it petered out in a haze of late-summer ennui. Chatwin is a very thoughtful writer who challenges you to focus on his level; it’s a struggle, not an unpleasant one, but one wants to feel worthy of the material.
This go-round is moving along at a slow but steady pace. Over the weekend I read a bit where Chatwin was writing about reading; of author Karl Strehlow he says,
He was, I am convinced, a highly original thinker. His books are great and lonely books.
I sort of feel the same way about Chatwin; he engages with people in his travels (to Australia in this case), but seems to stand apart somehow. I think we are going to be friends though. He ends the chapter this way:
When I could read no more, I shut the book. My eyelids felt like glasspaper. I finished the bottle of wine and went down to the bar for a brandy.
A fat man and his wife were sitting by the pool.
“A very good evening to you, sir!” he said.
“Good evening,” I said.
I ordered coffee and a double brandy at the bar, and took a second brandy back to the room. Reading Strehlow had made me want to write something.
Which was where I left off, on page 71 of 273. That’s still not as far as I got the first time, but optimism reigns.
I am closing in on the end of Klara and the Sun and leery of getting there, both because I’m enjoying the book a lot and because I fear disappointment. One of these days it’s going to sneak up on me, though; I’m imagining it will be late in the evening — which these days is very late indeed — and the sun will be just dipping below the horizon.
The Third Policeman was loaned to me by my yoga teacher after a conversation about Flann O’Brien’s At-Swim-Two-Birds. Generally I get annoyed when people give me books to read — I have so many already! — but she’s a great teacher and a very nice person so I am trying. The book has been living in my car and getting picked up now and again when reading material is required. It is indeed quite entertaining, and I may read some of it today.
The Yevgeny Zamyatin book I got after reading (and writing about) his novel We. It is a collection of essays and such, and a bit of a difficult read — both because I have little frame of reference for, say, discussions of early Soviet literature, and because the book itself is waterlogged and stiff and physically challenging. But sitting in a cafe with it makes me feel smart; likewise Stefan Zweig’s Messages from a Lost World, also a book of of essays and such. Over the last few years Zweig has become one of my favorite writers, and having finally exhausted all the fiction, I am now working on the non. It is less pleasurable but consistently well-crafted and humane.
In a piece about WWI titled “The Sleepless World,” Zweig repeats like a mantra:
There is less sleep in the world today; longer are the nights and longer the days.
And doesn’t that seem very 2023? I guess people have always felt that way. This is why it’s good to read old books; one is reminded that the more things change… well, you know.
It was a good month in terms of book (non-)acquisition. Dreaming of Babylon I got because I had just finished Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, and having been previously unaware that Brautigan had written a detective novel, got a little excited. I am saving that one as a reward, I’m not sure what for. I bought This Is How You Lose the Time War in Portland after reading a glowing review, then read the first few pages and took an immediate and intense dislike to it. So it will probably be going to the Booklegger in trade, which will leave me a net of one book acquired in May versus three finished. 30 more months like that and we’ll be getting somewhere.