K-Lunk / books

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.

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.

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.

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.

Dog Soldiers

Books December 24, 2022


I devoured Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone this week. It had me up past my bedtime, racing toward the end. In this rather literary thriller, we join lightly shell-shocked American journo John Converse in Vietnam, writing for “Nightbeat, which his lawyers described as A Weekly Tabloid With a Heavy Emphasis on Sex,” as he gives up on ever writing his novel to try his hand at running heroin instead. It fits squarely into one of my favorite subject areas in American literature – the clash between the state and the psychadelic spirit, war and counter-culture, conspiracy and love, or, how the 60s were lost.

Dog Soldiers opens with a feverish Converse on a park bench in Saigon, reading a letter from his strangely disaffected wife who recounts a recent trip to New York, where she and some friends “went to a parade which was for the War”:

Three of us—me, looking relatively straight, and Don and Cathy looking modified freaky. We weren’t too well received. You had to see that action to believe it. … My flash was that these people are freakier than we ever could be. One tends to think of them as straight but when you see them they’re unreal.

(This observation is every bit as true in the Trump era as it was then.)

This sense of unreality pervades the novel – if the States have become “funnier,” as characters warn each other repeatedly, Vietnam itself may be the corrupting influence. Converse converses with an American missionary sharing his park bench between reading snatches of his letter. “‘Satan,’ she called to him, ‘is very powerful here.’ ‘Yes,’ Converse said. ‘He would be.’” Or, as Sergeant Janeway says to Converse as he arranges a pretext to see his pal Hicks, who can transport the dope – “Every day in this place … we entertain the weird, the strange, the unusual.”

Confidence Man

Books December 12, 2022

And then I came to the end of Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America (2022), New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman’s biography of Trump.

It took me months – I bought this to entertain myself on a flight to Chicago back in September. Thinking what? That I would find some insight here? Truth and reconciliation? Look, The Power Broker (1974) this is not.

If anything, I’m left mostly with the sense that things … just sort of happen, and there’s not much you can do about it. Revisiting these names and events, no deeper meaning is revealed to me. Bannon, Miller, Scaramucci, Guiliani, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice! People are venal and craven, not only but especially the ones in power – not a surprise – and it turns out that examining this in close detail will not enrich your life.

I don’t know who needs to hear this right now, although I’m sure it’ll be important to future historians or whatever. Recommended if you like reliving outrage through dry reportage.


Books December 6, 2022

I slogged through Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990) over the past couple of weeks.

Vineland is about systematic repression – of unions, of the revolutionary spirit of the psychadelic 60s, even of law enforcement itself as the Hoover-Nixon heyday of the 70s gave way to fiscal austerity in Reagan’s 80s. After reading it, I think I understand better what it might have felt like to live through the end of the dream of the 60s.