The Neon Bible

“If you were different from anybody in town, you had to get out. That’s why everybody was so much alike. The way they talked, what they did, what they liked, what they hated. If somebody got to hate something and he was the right person, everybody had to hate it too, or people began to hate the ones who didn’t hate it. They used to tell us in school to think for yourself, but you couldn’t do that in the town. You had to think what your father thought all his life, and that was what everybody thought.”
― John Kennedy Toole, The Neon Bible

Ignatius J. Reilly

Ignatius J. Reilly, sculpture on Canal Street.

Oblique Strategy: Always first steps

Six down, ninety-four to go.

While working on my goals for 2018 I decided to set a goal of reading a hundred books in the year. Thinking about it, I decided the only way to pull this off was to read short books. I made a list of 66 short novels and wrote about it. Thinking more about it, I was excited enough to jump the gun and start the 100 books immediately.

Next up is The Neon Bible, the first, and next to last novel by John Kennedy Toole. He is the author that wrote the famous A Confederacy of Dunces and created the amazing character, Ignatius J. Reilly.

It is not as well known as Confederacy of Dunces, and the author didn’t even seem to think much of it. He said, “In 1954, when I was 16, I wrote a book called The Neon Bible, a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South—and the fundamentalist mentality is one of the roots of what was happening in Alabama, etc. The book, of course, was bad, but I sent it off a couple of times anyway.”

So I picked up the book, with low expectations, but it had a slim page count, and I loved A Confederacy of Dunces – so I was sure it would be worth the effort and time.

And it was – not entirely successful as a novel, even as a bildungsroman, but it contains some amazing scenes and descriptions of life in a hell-hole little city in a beautiful Mississippi valley. It’s pretty observant and socially aware for something written by a sixteen year old.

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Snapshot

“Was there any human urge more pitiful-or more intense- than wanting another chance at something?”
—-Joe Hill

From Snapshot, by Joe Hill

Oblique Strategy: Honor thy error as a hidden intention

Four down, ninety-six to go.

A few days ago, while working on my goals for 2018 I decided to set a goal of reading a hundred books in the year. Thinking about it, I decided the only way to pull this off was to read short books. I made a list of 66 short novels and wrote about it. Thinking more about it, I was excited enough to jump the gun and start the 100 books immediately. The first one I read was Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The second was Zastrozzi, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The third was The Room by Jonas Karlsson.

Next up is a Novella, Snapshot by an author I have never read before (to my memory), Joe Hill. Not sure where I read about Hill, but I did read about him somewhere and he sounded like something I’d like so I put his collection of four Novellas onto my Kindle.

And Joe Hill is an author that I’m interested in.

You see, I have this odd theory of literature. It’s not the only theory – but it is one that I think about a lot. There is the ordinary life that we all live – but it is a small amount of four-dimensional space in the whole of reality. Beyond this little island of our everyday, comfortable world is the bottomless sea of chaos. There is a thin barrier, a translucent membrane, separating us from this tractless void that surrounds us. Certain fictional people, certain stories, rub up against- or penetrate completely this delicate membrane. Sometimes the characters return, sometimes not. This is what I’m interesting in writing about and reading about.

In Snapshot the character is an overweight unpopular teenager and his experience with the void is in defending an addled old woman against a lunatic tattooed man with a very strange and dangerous camera. It is a crackerjack tale. I especially like it because not all wrongs are righted and not all secrets are revealed.

Another nice thing is that there are three other novellas in the collection – though they will have to wait for later.

From Snapshot, by Joe Hill

The Room

“Stupid people don’t always know that they’re stupid. They might be aware that something is wrong, they might notice that things don’t usually turn out the way they imagined, but very few of them think it’s because of them. That they’re the root of their own problems, so to speak. And that sort of thing can be very difficult to explain.”
― Jonas Karlsson, The Room

Oblique Strategy: Get your neck massaged

Here’s some origami I did. I’m working on a story and I decided to origami my draft. The design is called, “This is a bunch of crap.”

Three down, ninety-seven to go.

A few days ago, while working on my goals for 2018 I decided to set a goal of reading a hundred books in the year. Thinking about it, I decided the only way to pull this off was to read short books. I made a list of 66 short novels and wrote about it. Thinking more about it, I was excited enough to jump the gun and start the 100 books immediately. The first one I read was Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The second was Zastrozzi, by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I picked The Room by Jonas Karlsson by walking down the fiction aisle in the Library and looking for a thin book. There were two by the same author, the other was called The Invoice. I chose The Room because is was slightly smaller.

The book is a Kafkaesque tale, or at least it starts that way, of a worker bee in an antiseptic office (his boss keeps trying to get him to wear shoe covers to keep from tracking dirt) that discovers a secret room behind a door down the hall, between the lift and the toilets. He discovers that going there relaxes him and enables him to get through the day with a little less stress.

One thing about this room reminded me of one of my favorite tomes, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. In House of Leaves, Will Navidson discovers his house is a few inches larger on the inside than it is on the outside. In The Room, Bjorn measures the hallway with leftover Christmas fairy lights and discovers there is no space for his room. He chalks it up to a trick of architecture.

The book starts out lighthearted but takes a darker turn as Bjorn’s officemates decide they don’t like him hanging out in his own special room. The book, told in the first person, like We Have Always Lived in the Castle, sports an unreliable narrator… an extremely unreliable narrator. The central question is “Is he nuts?” and there isn’t much doubt about the answer.

One question in my mind was who does Bjorn work for anyway? It is called The Authority and seems to be a quasi-government agency. It seems Orwellian as they take reports from investigators and process them in various ways. At any rate, their actual work seems to be easy enough – a lot of paper-pushing.

I enjoyed the book enough to think about reading The Invoice later. The author, Johas Karlsson is a popular Swedish Actor. A real Renaissance man.

Zastrozzi

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
― Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

Spirit of the Centennial, Woman’s Building, Fair Park, Dallas, Texas

Oblique Strategy: Is it finished?

The sky was unusually obscured, the sun had sunk beneath the western mountain, and its departing ray tinged the heavy clouds with a red glare.–The rising blast sighed through the towering pines, which rose loftily above Matilda’s head: the distant thunder, hoarse as the murmurs of the grove, in indistinct echoes mingled with the hollow breeze; the scintillating lightning flashed incessantly across her path, as Matilda, heeding not the storm, advanced along the trackless forest.

The crashing thunder now rattled madly above, the lightnings flashed a larger curve, and at intervals, through the surrounding gloom, showed a scathed larch, which, blasted by frequent storms, reared its bare head on a height above.

Matilda sat upon a fragment of jutting granite, and contemplated the storm which raged around her. The portentous calm, which at intervals occurred amid the reverberating thunder, portentous of a more violent tempest, resembled the serenity which spread itself over Matilda’s mind–a serenity only to be succeeded by a fiercer paroxysm of passion.
—-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Zastrozzi

Two down, ninety-eight to go.

A few days ago, while working on my goals for 2018 I decided to set a goal of reading a hundred books in the year. Thinking about it, I decided the only way to pull this off was to read short books. I made a list of 66 short novels and wrote about it. Thinking more about it, I was excited enough to jump the gun and start the 100 books immediately. The first one I read was Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

How I chose this one, I have no idea. While I have nothing against real books, I knew that to read a hundred books I’ll have to put a lot of them onto my Kindle. So I started perusing the various sources of free ebooks online (especially Project Gutenberg) and downloaded Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first novel, Zastrozzi, from Project Gutenberg Australia.

It is a true Gothic Novel – a revenge tale of overwhelming lust and evil. There is nothing subtle here, but who is in the mood for that? I liked it a lot more than I expected. It is short – about a hundred pages or so, and a quick read.

A wood engraving by Cecil Keeling from the 1955 Golden Cockerel Press edition of Zastrozzi

It is interesting how many similar scenes there are in this book to Frankenstein – written by Shelley’s wife Mary. That reminded me of the terribly wonderful and extremely entertaining (if fatally flawed) over-the-top film of that fateful weekend where Mary Shelley wrote her tale The Modern Prometheus, basically on a dare – Gothic directed by the mad genius Ken Russell. I’d like to watch that thing again.

Looking around, I see that an updated Zastrozzi was also made into a British mimi-series (also from 1986) starring Tilda Swinton as Julia. I’d love to see that, but it’s pretty obscure. Have to keep my eyes out.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”
― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas
(click to enlarge)

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
― Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (opening paragraph)

One down, ninety-nine to go.

A couple of days ago, while working on my goals for 2018 I decided to set a goal of reading a hundred books in the year. Thinking about it, I decided the only way to pull this off was to read short books. I made a list of 66 short novels and wrote about it. Thinking more about it, I was excited enough to jump the gun and start the 100 books immediately. On my way home from work I stopped at the Richardson Library and, walking through the fiction stacks with my list in hand, chose six: The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, The Room by Jonas Karlsson, Heartburn by Nora Ephron, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.

I chose We Have Always Lived in the Castle (214 pages) as the first – read it last night and this morning. As I go through the books I plan on writing a blog entry – a little about each, as spoiler-free as possible.

I have, as has everyone, read Shirley Jackson’s most famous short story, The Lottery. I remember the horror and surprise when we read this in class, in maybe sixth grade, when we realized that this wasn’t going to be the usual school-bored approved feel-good literary treacle we were used to being served up to us. It was also a thrill as our young minds began to comprehend the potential and possibilities of literature.

There is a lot of The Lottery in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The style and setting are very different, but the overall themes are related. The fear and horror of the village and the evil that people, set in their ways, can wring. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is told in the first person of an eighteen year old girl and has a classic “unreliable narrator” – there is no doubt from the beginning that things are not quite as she sees them.

The book is touted as a “mystery” – though that’s misleading. There is really no doubt in the reader’s mind who is behind the “mystery” – the real question is what’s going to happen about it. Another interesting quirk is that the evil villagers – reviled throughout the book, are given a little bit of redemption towards the end. I liked that, I am a sucker for redemption.

I didn’t know much about the author or her life. Not surprising… her husband wrote about her: “she consistently refused to be interviewed, to explain or promote her work in any fashion, or to take public stands and be the pundit of the Sunday supplements. She believed that her books would speak for her clearly enough over the years” (from Wikipedia). That sounds pretty refreshing to me.

When you read about her married life in Wikipedia:

According to Jackson’s biographers, the marriage was plagued by Hyman’s infidelities, notably with his students. He controlled most aspects of their relationship. … He controlled their finances (meting out portions of her earnings to her as he saw fit), despite the fact that after the success of “The Lottery” and later work she earned far more than he did. He insisted that she raise the children and do all the mundane household chores. She felt patronized in her role as a faculty wife, and ostracized by the townspeople of North Bennington. Her dislike of this situation led to her increasing abuse of alcohol, tranquilizers, and amphetamines, and influenced the themes of much of her later work

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is her last novel and these themes are front and center in the novel.

One other bonus to reading this short novel – It looks like it is about to be made into a film. Alexandra Daddario, Sebastian Stan, and Crispin Glover. I always like to read the book before the movie comes out.

Now, on to the next. What should I choose….

Sixty Six Short Novels

“So many books, so little time.”
― Frank Zappa

Kindle

Call Me Ishmael

Oblique Strategy: Distorting time

I am working on my goals for next year. One thing that I wanted to do is to up my reading game. I was thinking about a goal of reading a hundred books in 2018.

That seemed a little silly. Though an avid reader, I am not as fast as I used to be – brain and eyes are letting me down more and more. I don’t have very much free time and even less excess energy. But that century mark of tomes read was such a siren call.

Then I thought, “They don’t have to be long books.” I could salt my reading list with shorter works (less than 200 pages) and then my goal might be doable. To experiment, I walked through the shelves of the Richardson library looking for thinner editions and found there were plenty to be hunted down.

It was a quick leap from that to heading out onto the web. I typed in “list of best short novels” into Google and opened up the first half-dozen hits or so. An hour of copying and pasting later, I had 66 books in a list. I included the title, the author, and a little blurb from whatever website I scoured the information from. There were a lot of duplicates in the various websites, of course (I think I’ve caught all of those) and I threw out half the books because I had already read them.

One cool thing is that I kept thinking, “Oh, that’s not really a book I would read,” and then I’d catch myself – these are short so there is little lost in starting a book that I might not relate to… this is a great place to experiment, to branch out, to try something new. Of course, there is a satisfaction at finishing a great weighty hunk of a book – maybe I’ll make 2019 the year of reading a few really big books.

The more I think about this, the more excited I get. I think I’ll start early – 2018 is only a couple weeks away. I think I’ll head down to the library with this list in hand and see what I can find. Wish me luck. If you have any recommendations or ideas – I’d be glad to hear them. A hundred books in a year – sounds like a plan.

Here’s the list, so far:

1 Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
“Dept. of Speculation, a series of short dispatches from the front line of a marriage, is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and often both in the same sentence.”

2 We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
“A gripping tale of murder most foul on the estate of the Blackwood family, Shirley Jackson’s final novel is the kind of book you’ll want everyone to read just so you can talk about it.”

3 The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
“A book about cultural identity as much as politics, The Reluctant Fundamentalist follows a Princeton-educated Pakistani as his life in America collapses post 9/11”

4 Heartburn by Nora Ephron
“In Nora Ephron s hilarious novel, based on the breakdown of her second marriage, group therapy and infidelity share the page with recipes for pot roast.”

5 Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
“Achebe’s classic novel follows Okonkwo, a man who finds himself at odds with society and history amid the changing cultural landscape in Nigeria. 209 pages.”

6 Shopgirl by Steve Martin
“An exploration of loneliness, softened by Martin’s witty observations and dry humour, Shopgirl follows the titular character as she navigates life in Los Angeles.”

7 The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
“Classic Christie, classic Marple. When the body of a young woman is discovered in the library at Gossington Hall, the hunt is on to find out whodunnit.”

8 The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
An examination of life and the narratives we construct for ourselves that won the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

9 Sula by Toni Morrison
“Sula follows the contrasting lives of two girls growing up in a poor, black Ohio neighbourhood, and the different paths they choose.”

10 The Dig by Cynan Jones
“A sparse, dark, brutal novella about a Welsh farmer struggling to make a living from his sheep, and an unnamed man digging up badgers to bait.”

11 How to Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak
“An absurd, delightful novel about a Polish immigrant in Los Angeles who schemes to reinvent herself in order to gain access to the Twin Palms nightclub.”

12 Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
Two friends plot the downfall of a politician in this Booker-winning novella

13 Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates
“The aftermath of a gang rape on a young mother is explored in a searing indictment of rape culture and the lack of justice, care, and understanding for victims.”

14 The Quiet American by Graham Greene
A seasoned English journalist in Vietnam watches as a young American turns good intentions into bad policy and bloodshed in this powerful anti-war allegory.

15 The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
“A fantastical, lyrical love story set during the Napoleonic Wars”

16 Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
“A novel in verse, Autobiography of Red gives voice to a minor character in Greek mythology, updating his story to the present day. There are those who love it and those who haven’t read it. Be the former”

17 The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
A stream-of-consciousness journey into the mind of a man on his lunch break

18 At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom by Amy Hempel
“A collection of 16 utterly compelling, gorgeously crafted short stories.”

19 Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
“A horror novel following the 12th expedition into the uncharted Area X. Any guesses what happened to the previous 11 expeditions Nope, weirder than that.”

20 The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole
“Written when Toole was just 16, but not published until after his death. Well worth a read for fans of his A Confederacy of Dunces.”

21 Speedboat by Renata Adler
“An experimental novel that defies literary convention and category, this mix of fiction, critique, memoir, confession, and essay demands to be experienced.”

22 If You’re Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki
“A darkly comic novella in which the narrator tells her unborn daughter the story of how she came to be. A romantic comedy with the emphasis on comedy, not romance.”

23 Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Ethan Frome struggles to tend to his farm and his wife then her beautiful cousin comes to stay.

24 Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
“In a reverse narrative, the protagonist moves backwards from death towards the story’s beginning and his role in one of the most horrific events in recent history.”

25 Lucinella by Lore Segal
“A witty and searing indictment of the ’70s New York literary scene, in which a poet observes her peers at a writer’s colony upstate.”

26 Night by Elie Wiesel
A harrowing account of the author’s time in Nazi concentration camps.

27 Ablutions by Patrick deWitt
“An alcoholic bartender in Los Angeles observes the lonely, broken, and grotesque characters who populate his bar, among whom he may be the most broken.”

28 Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The compelling story of two outsiders striving to find their place in an unforgiving world

29 Cheri by Colette
“L‚a de Lonval is an aging courtesan, a once famous beauty facing the end of her sexual career. She is also facing the end of her most intense love affair, with Fred Peloux known as Ch‚ri a playboy half her age. ”

30 The King by Donald Barthelme
“In The King, a retelling of Le Morte D’Arthur, Donald Barthelme moves the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table to the cruelty of the Second World War.”

31 Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
“This short novel is a dream: the kind you dip into, just for a drowsy second”

32 Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
“The final novel from the acclaimed American author, about an elderly man and woman who come together to tackle their loneliness. A low-key, melancholy yet beautifully tender read about making the most of life.”

33 The Vegetarian By Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith.
“Set in South Korea, this is the story of Yeong-hye and her decision to become a vegetarian and the shocking reaction that this rebellion triggers in her family. A deserving winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016.”

34 Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
“Bold and experimental, Virginia Woolf’s story of one day in the lives of Clarissa Dalloway, a fashionable, wealthy and accomplished hostess, and Septimus Warren Smith, a shellshocked survivor of the Great War, is a landmark in twentieth-century fiction. ”

35 Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter
“Winner of the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize and one of the most highly acclaimed novels of recent times, Max Porter s debut novel is an astonishing, and surprisingly humorous, study of a man and his two sons dealing with the loss of their mother.”

36 A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
“Andreas is a simple man of few words, yet he lives an extraordinary life. At under 160 pages, Robert Seethaler’s novel is a tender book about finding dignity and beauty in solitude.”

37 The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
“An elliptical meditation on the mysteries of love, life and time, this is a sad yet beautiful novel from America s true masters of fiction, Don DeLillo. ”

38 Bonjour Tristesse by Fran‡oise Sagan
“Bonjour Tristesse scandalised 1950s France with its portrayal of teenager terrible C‚cile, a heroine who rejects conventional notions of love, marriage and responsibility to choose her own sexual freedom.”

39 Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson
“Highly praised by the likes of Lena Dunham and Alice Sebold, this is a compelling read about a poet leaving behind her sensible boyfriend for a renowned artist, a decision which causes her rational world to begin to unravel.”

40 All This Has Nothing To Do With Me by Monica Sabolo
“MS interviews the mysterious XX for a job and hires him because she fancies him. As their relationship develops, and then collapses, MS lays bare her feelings in emails, text messages, photographs that show the tragedy and the comedy of her obsession. ”

41 The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
This charming novel about a cat that brings joy into a couple’s life was a surprise bestseller around the world.

42 The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher by Ahn Do-hyun
“Wise, tender and inspiring, this is the story of a salmon whose silver scales mark him out as different – who dares to leap beyond his fate. It’s a story about growing up, and about aching and ardent love.”

43 The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
“In the midst of a mysterious environmental crisis, as London is submerged below flood waters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, the family are forced to leave their home in search of safety. As they move from place to place, shelter to shelter, their journey traces both fear and wonder as Z’s small fists grasp at the things he sees, as he grows and stretches, thriving and content against all the odds. ”

44 By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano
“There s a passage in Bolano s own great tome, 2666, attacking people who prefer the perfect exercises of the great masters to the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. Admittedly, By Night in Chile is not quite on par with 2666, but it manages to be both a perfect exercise and a blazing path into the unknown.”

45 Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
“Perhaps McCarthy s second greatest novel, after the incomparable Blood Meridian, Child of God is an Appalachian nightmare written in gorgeously lush prose.” 

46 In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
“Brautigan at his best and weirdest. This surreal novel is set in a commune named iDEATH where different colored watermelons provide building materials. A lot of modern indie fiction seems indebted to Brautigan s unique combination of whimsy and sadness, but few if any match his power.”

47 The Third Policeman by Flann O Brien
“One of the greatest novels of the 20th century, this underrated book is a wild roller coaster of dark comedy, surreal images, and just plain brilliant writing.”

48 Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser
“Walser seems to be experience a well-deserved revival in recent years. If you haven t read his joyous yet bizarre writings, Jakob von Gunten is the place to start.”

49 Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
“Dreamy and completely beautiful, Robinson s slim 1981 novel is frequently cited as one of the greatest American novels of the last 50 years. I agree.”

50 The Loser by Thomas Bernhard
“If you are like me, there s nothing you love as much as a witty grump. Bernhard s novels take the form of acerbic rants, and The Loser is among the best of them.”

51 Giovanni s Room by James Baldwin
James Baldwin s second and perhaps best novel is a beautiful and moving story about a homosexual American man in Paris.

52 The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector
“Most people seem to read Lispector s also very short novel The Hour of the Star and call it a day. However, her other novels are even stronger. The Passion is an energetic yet philosophical short novel that everyone should read.”

53 The Lime Twig by John Hawkes
“A dark nightmare in the form of a crime novel, Hawkes explores terror through innovative prose. I only just read The Lime Twig this week and already feel happy recommending it.”

54 Ray by Barry Hannah
“One of the greatest Southern American writers which is saying something given that the region has given us O Connor, Faulkner, Hurston, and more Barry Hannah s prose is acrobatic and addictive. Ray, his shortest novel, is a great starting place if you have never read him.”

55 Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
“This is a weird hallucination of a book reading it feels like an experience, like something that happens to you, as infectious and mysterious and unstoppable and possibly magical as the disease that powers its plot. There is absolutely no way to put it down without breaking the spell, so make sure you re comfy.”

56 Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck
“A lovely, slim novel that tells the stories of the various inhabitants of a house on a wooded bit of land near a lake outside Berlin, before, during and after WWII but like Woolf s To the Lighthouse, it is not really about the inhabitants, but rather very pointedly about time, and the pull of place.”

57 A Separation by Katie Kitamura
“This one s a cheat, because it doesn t actually come out until February, but mark your calendar for sleeplessness, because if you re anything like me, you ll read it straight through without stopping. The plot is, essentially, this: a woman follows her estranged (and unresponsive) husband to Greece, where she proceeds to look for him (and discover the mysteries he s left in his wake). Kitamura s spare language somehow seems barely able to control the emotion it signifies. In some ways, this is a meditation on the stories we paint onto other people, and how little we can really know them which, honestly, keeps me up at night as much or more than any missing person.”

58 A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
“A surprisingly terrifying short novel about children kidnapped by pirates, elevated from its silliness by surprising moments of violence and introspection, as well as repeated flourishes of literary brilliance. Also, it s funny. Take for instance, this passage: Being nearly four years old, she was certainly a child: and children are human (if one allows the term human a wide sense): but she had not altogether ceased to be a baby: and babies are of course not human they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes: the same in kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates. ”

59 Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
“At this beginning of this novel, Sophie Bentwood is bitten by a cat that may or may not have rabies. The ensuing domestic drama wonderful and terrible in its own right is then overlaid with this crazed, manic specter of disease that had me turning pages like a madwoman.”

60 Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim
“For my money one of the best novels ever written, of any length. Something bad is happening in Pete Robinson s town something that has his neighbors building moats around their homes and all the members of the Rotary Club finding their inner animals (his wife is, apparently, the prehistoric coelacanth). Oh, and the mayor has been drawn and quartered. Even if you don t want to know what happens next, this novel will have you flipping pages just to get to each new delicious surrealist detail.”

61 Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates
“You d think that the structure of this novel, a sort of mythologized retelling of the Chappaquiddick incident, would strip it of any of its tension after all, it begins with the car going off the road. But as Oates goes over and over the event and everything that led up to it from different angles, from different moments, from different points of view the reader keeps hoping that that repeated phrase ( As the black water filled her lungs, and she died. ) will somehow be made untrue. And yet, we know it will not be. And yet, we keep reading, more horrified by the moment.”

62 The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
“This novel is the diary of a fugitive, hiding on a strange island, who falls in love with one of the mysterious tourists that appear on his shores. A hallucinatory examination of the nature of reality, with a romantic twist, which won high praise from Jorge Luis Borges and Octavio Paz, among others.”

63 Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector
“I ve always thought of Lispector s first novel as a pulsing, beating thing not just near, but the wild heart itself. It’s not a plot-heavy book, but the internal life of the amoral, incendiary Joana and what she will do, and what she will think, and what she will say is endlessly fascinating.”

64 The Room by Jonas Karlsson
Funny, clever, surreal, and thought-provoking, this Kafkaesque masterpiece introduces the unforgettable Bjorn, an exceptionally meticulous office worker striving to live life on his own terms.

65 We the Animals by Justin Torres
“I was sold on this book a coming of age story told in luminous prose from the very first paragraph, which by itself might keep me up for a few extra hours, looking for some of that more:”” We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more. ”

66 Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
“The story of a disaffected housewife with a cheating husband, who starts an affair with wait for it a 6-foot-7 amphibious monster man named Larry. So.”

Beer and Batuman

“I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors. Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies. But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo.”
― Elif Batuman, The Idiot

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman

Oblique Strategy: You are an engineer

In my struggle to live life outwardly, I spotted an event on Facebook that looked interesting. There was going to be a Book Club discussion at The Wild Detectives in Bishop Arts. I love that place – named after a Roberto Bolaño novel – it has a carefully curated collection of books, coffee and beer. What else do you need? On the weekends, they turn the wifi off – so people will be forced to talk to each other.

What could be better than to meet in a place like that and talk about a book?

The selected tome was The Idiot by Elif Batuman. The book is a bildungsroman about a ninteen-year-old woman attending her first year at Harvard.

I only had a little over a week before the meeting so I set up a spreadsheet with the number of pages per day I had to read. I have a terrible confession to make. I had a nice heavy hardback copy and the Kindle version. I never picked up the physical book. The new Paperwhite is simply too good.

I’m sorry.

The book was very interesting. Terribly well-written, it was unique in that the protagonist, Selin, was the most passive main character I have ever read in a novel. She drifts along, only slightly buffeted by life. Reading about her, I had the image of a person sliding down a featureless sheet of ice, silently observing the scenery go by (in very great and subtle detail).

So my feelings on the novel were mixed. It was interesting in that this woman’s life in her freshman year was incredibly different than mine (in a bildungsroman you can’t help but compare the protagonists experiences to your own) – for example: sex, drugs, and rock and roll make no significant appearance in her life at all.

One interesting aspect of the novel is that it takes place at the very beginning of the internet age: Selin is confused at first by this email thing – until she embraces it and has the most significant relationship with a slow email conversation with someone she met in Russian class.

The Wild Detectives is way across town from my ‘hood and I fought through the traffic after work, arriving early enough for a preliminary beer (Texas Ale Project‘s Fire Ant Funeral – if you are interested).

I really enjoyed the discussion. We started talking about the cover (I never even noticed there was a rock on the cover). Talking about the email, someone brought up that it was like letter writing in the time of classic Russian Novels (like Dostoevsky’s own version of The Idiot) people would write letters to each other, the distance and time separating the two adding a surreal aspect to a relationship.

A very nice way to wile away an evening.

The next novel we will discuss is The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet. I bought a hardback copy at the bookstore – I’ll avoid temptation and not buy the Kindle version. We won’t meet until January, so I won’t need a spreadsheet to egg on the pages.