Books Abandoned as of March 2023

Books March 31, 2023

I’ve had a lot of false starts this year. I’ve been giving up on books more lately than I’ve been finishing them. Uh, why let that stop me from writing about them?

Babel by R. F. Kuang

Babel by R.F. Kuang

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution lost the tournament of books championship to The Book of Goose today. I wish I had spent my several months of library hold time on that.

Of the many folks who weighed in on Babel in the Tournament of Books, I agreed most with Nathan Deuel, who writes: “Tediously conjured from a mountain of research, featuring stiff central characters whose bland agonies distract from a molten core, Babel squanders several fresh and stirring ideas about language and power.” I gave up early in the second act. I struggled to get past the characterization and didacticism. Angela read it after me and loved it, though.

Black Lamb and Gray Falcon by Rebecca West

Black Lamb and Gray Falcon by Rebecca West

I renewed the library loan once for Dame Rebecca West’s mammoth travelogue of the Balkans, and still managed only to wade through a bit less than half before calling it quits. I don’t regret a minute of the time I spent, but I feel like I’ve had enough. I picked this up because Geoff Dyer swears by it in The Last Days of Roger Federer.

West traveled through the Balkans from England with her husband, apparently a very well read banker, between the World Wars. There is a very eerie moment where West is standing in the last room Franz Ferdinand occupied before he was assasinated, with a guy who was in the room at the time, and she explains how Ferdinand was this complete monster of a hunter who estimated himself to have killed half a million animals, and she imagines the spirits of all those animals gathered in the room as he prepares to step out and make his oration, driving the man toward assasination the way the archduke’s beaters drove the animals out of the forest into the scope of his gun. Can you imagine, half a million. He spent his time standing around shooting things, mostly.

The writing is a marvel, but it takes a lot of effort and after a couple of months I ran out of steam. Something I would buy in a heartbeat if I saw it used, just to have around.

Two Books Called The Deluge

The Deluge by Adam Tooze

The Deluge by Stephen Markley

I saw some kind of blurb go by for an ambitous sounding new climate change novel called The Deluge by Stephen Markley. I looked it up on Libby and found a long wait list. There also happens to be a book called The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916–1931 by Adam Tooze, which had no waitlist, and dovetailed quite nicely with my newfound interest in the origins of World War I awoken by Black Lamb and Gray Falcon. So I checked it out.

Tooze is a historian at Columbia, and this is the second time I’ve bounced off his dry, specialized writing style. I was missing so much context taken for granted that I had trouble making sense of or caring about the argument. My interest in the subject is too casual for this text. I had the same problem with Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (2018).

When it finally came available I read about two pages of Markley’s novel before ruling it out for style. I hate books that are so transparently about telling you science through hokey characterization.

No Bears

Movies February 5, 2023

Mina Kavani as Zara in Jafar Panahi’s film No Bears, 2022

I saw the now-imprisoned (on charges of “propaganda against the regime”) Iranian director’s quiet hit No Bears at the Roxie a couple weeks ago, and would recommend it to anyone. Starring Panahi himself as … an Iranian director in trouble with the government. The film is very much concerned with filmmaking, but the meta-ness of it all doesn’t get in the way of Panahi’s touching, funny, despairing characterizations of the villagers around him. A very moving and human film.

A Flag for Sunrise

Books January 28, 2023

A Flag for Sunrise (1981) by Robert Stone

A Flag For Sunrise is Robert Stone’s third novel, the one he wrote after Dog Soldiers which I wrote about last month. It’s another complicated political novel in which everyone is drunk and haunted by Vietnam and the deep state lurks in its shadowy way just out of the frame. I agree with Michael Wood, who wrote in this contemporary review for the New York Times book section “I have a weakness for gangsters who refer to Nietzsche and gunrunners who quote Shakespeare, Yeats and Oscar Wilde, but other readers may not feel the same.” I found this one somewhat more literary than Dog Soldiers, deeper and broader and more moving, if less taut.

I’ve always been nervous around zealots, and I think Stone’s novels brilliantly characterize a kind of clash between those who think they know what’s what and those who are aware they don’t:

Positive thinkers.

How could they? he wondered. How could they convince themselves that in this whirling tidal pool of existence, providence was sending them a message? Seeing visions, hearing voices, their eyes awash in their own juice—living on their own and borrowed hallucinations, banners, songs, kiddie art posters, phantom worship. The lines of bayonets, the marching rhythms, incense or torches, chanting, flights of doves—it was hypnosis. And they were the vampires. The world paid in blood for their articulate delusions, but it was all right because for a while they felt better. And presently they could put their consciences on automatic. They were beyond good and evil in five easy steps—it had to be O.K. because it was them after all. It was good old us, Those Who Are, Those Who See, the gang.

White Noise

Movies January 17, 2023

Wilson Webb / Netflix via AP

Noah Baumbach’s new adaptation of Don Delillo’s White Noise is streaming on netflix. I’d been looking forward to it for a long time, and it more than lived up to my expectations.

A classic absurdist study of the postmodern moment, brilliantly rendered. The distinctive Delillo dialog style is a treat for fans and maybe an acquired taste. The film does some things even better than the book – the overlapping cacaphony of family chatter, for example. I think the adaptation makes some of the limitations of the source material more apparent, as well: the scene where Jack and Murray give simultaneous circling, grandstanding lectures on Elvis and Hitler’s relationships with their mothers was always silly, but watching it play out on film is extra unconvincing.

I loved the end credits, which interperet a supermarket through dance. A really beautiful blend of conventional pop dancing and stoned mysticism.

Feel Free

Books January 14, 2023

I like having a collection of essays on the back burner; I picked up Feel Free from Cristopher’s Books months ago to fill that role in a giddy rush of name recognition – Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth (2000) has stuck with me since I read it in college (2010 maybe?). Smith’s novels have not gripped me again – I bounced off NW (2012) a couple of times, just not in the mood – but Smith’s criticism is always a pleasure to read, neatly articulating new webs of art and life with personal feeling and close observation. This book sat on my nightstand for a long time as in between other books I took little sips from the well of these essays.

Some personal favorites include “Windows on the Will: Anomalisa” – reading Charlie Kaufmann’s stop-motion character study against the movie Polar Express and Schopenhauer’s understanding of humans as puppets whose strings are pulled by the will-to-live (whatever that is) – and the review “The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi,” which is both a book review and a revealing account of an early and transformative reading experience of the author’s. I admit I did not read all of the Harpers columns, which I’m sure I would have appreciated individually if I were reading them month to month but did not make for the most exciting contiguous block of reading.

Terror Twilight

Music January 7, 2023

Matador 1999

Terror Twilight is Pavement’s last album, as I remembered sometime after putting it on a couple of nights ago. I thought I might borrow The Last Days of Roger Federer’s theme (recently reviewed) of “last things” for my own purposes, and share notes on one of my favorite records.

What does Terror Twilight have to say about the coming end of Pavement and the start of Stephen Malkmus recording with the Jicks and as himself? Below, song-by-song notes from my latest look at one of the great late works in indie rock.

The Passenger

Books January 6, 2023

Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR. Click for NPR’s review

A copy of The Passenger finally came through on Libby for me. I read most of it in a sudden calm spell in the wake of the holidays, the day after New Year’s Day.

The language in this novel is unlike anything. McCarthy has been polishing it since the 1970s. I guess that’s how you get a paragraph like this:

Seals roused himself. A bird person he. In his bathroom brooding raptors hooded like hangmen shifted sullenly upon their perches. A saker, a lanneret.

It’s going to take a while to marinate. I immediately ordered this nice matching box set of hardcovers. I’ll write more about it after I get through Stella Maris.

The Last Days of Roger Federer

Books January 3, 2023

It’s always a pleasure to learn there’s a new book from Geoff Dyer. The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings is the latest such treat, a looping “book about last things, some of which are late, while some are precociously early.” The theme gives Dyer, sharp and funny as ever, free reign to bounce around associatively from one pet subject to the next. All of Dyer’s obsessions, which will be familiar to anyone who has read his previous books (you should), endlessly recur again here – D. H. Lawrence, John Berger, Theodore Adorno, jazz, photography, himself, not doing yoga, a dozen other things. The main text of the work has exactly 86,400 words (the number of seconds in a day), split into 3 parts each divided into 60 numbered segments, a clever structure that echoes one of Dyer’s favorite touchstones, Christian Marclay’s looping 24 hour video installation “The Clock” (2010). This isn’t a great place to start with Dyer (I recommend But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz for that, even if you don’t care at all about jazz), and if you’ve already started, then you already know. This is one I’d like to revisit when I’m 60.

If you’re interested at all in getting to know Dyer a bit, I recommend checking out the episode “It’s Always Sunny in the Dialectic” from novelist Hari Kunzru’s “Into the Zone” podcast – Kunzru and Dyer have breakfast at Cafe Gratitude and then go to Adorno’s house in L.A.

Livin' in the After

Music December 29, 2022

Still from the music video to “Livin’ in the After” by Panda Bear and Sonic Boom. Click for youtube.

Reset by Panda Bear and Sonic Boom is one of my favorite albums of 2022. The standout track for me is “Livin’ in the After”, a buzzy psych-tinged meditation from the perspective of someone who’s been “Loopin’ on the carousel / On the carousel.” As Panda Bear explains to Pitchfork, all of the songs on Reset are built out of the intros to old songs, looped and warped into catchy contemporary ditties. The repetition of “On the carousel” is a nice touch, echoing both the production technique and the emotional theme. The speaker, for whom “they keep on ringin’ the final bell,” seems to be having a classic kind of midlife crisis – stuck in a rut, comfortable and entertained but increasingly aware of the imminence of their own death.

What does it mean, “living in the after”? I think it’s a neat way of describing the rut-stuck mindset. The phrase reminds me of Zadie Smith’s essay “Meet Justin Bieber!” in Feel Free (2018), which offers an image of “a Beleiber in the Justin Bieber signing queue,” lined up for “an experience which even as it is happening seems to be relegated to the past tense … not only is this meeting always already a story, it only really exists as narrative.” You’re thinking, “OMG I just met Justin Bieber” even as you’re shaking his hand – a clear cut case of livin’ in the after, to me.

It’s very difficult to break out of that kind of mindset, a difficulty the speaker conveys relatably:

I don’t even want to try and it’s got me down
And I’m thinkin’ I might not come ‘round
Got to take a day to think it through
And give me a night to make up my mind

It’s a deep and melancholy bop. Panda Bear’s voice (and relative level of pretension) turns off a lot of people, but if you can get past that, I think you’ll find a lot to love on Reset.

Glass Onion

Movies December 28, 2022

Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion: a Knives Out Mystery

I, too, have now seen Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. I agree with Esquire that it’s a “Perfect Film for the Age of Elon Musk” – it captures the mood, channeling its characters out of the anti-tech sentiment with spooky accuracy. It’s a movie about seeing through the ego of the haves to see what they have not got: a clue. I laughed a lot. I cringed a lot. I was not moved.

The cultural commentary is pleasant and agreeable, comfy, not going to sway or shock anyone. Daniel Craig is brilliant again; the plot hinges on his thick “Southern Hokum,” and his ability to turn that off while still selling you on his Southern Gentility. We first meet him in the bathtub, where he’s been since the start of Covid lockdown, trying – and failing – to play Among Us with some concerned friends. It was extremely evocative of the time, for me. Edward Norton gives us his best Dirtbag CEO, Dave Bautista his veiniest Men’s Rights Twitch streamer, Kate Hudson her ditsiest fashion influencer. It’s funny and dumb. Janelle Monae (!) has her biggest and best role yet (in this medium, anyway) and is the emotional heart of the film.