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Recent Reads

I added Dustin Long’s Icelander to my Amazon wish list after stumbling upon his Listmania entry on “Books that you might like.” The first two entries—Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman—provide much of the blueprint for Icelander, a postmodern satire of literary authorship in the guise of a murder mystery. The first third of the novel suffers from this tribute; the footnotes add little to the actual text, interrupting an already slow-building narrative. Once Long opts to rotate the narrative perspective, however, Icelander begins to take better shape, setting “Our Heroine” against a number of other voices, some (Blaise Duplain) more compelling than the protagonist. Unlike some of the other indebted literary devices, the rotating cast of narrators feels natural, allowing for smoother shifts between storylines and helping to establish the mythological framework for his imagined community. This section also builds momentum for the resolution of the murder mystery, which may actually be more successful than its postmodern frame narrative.

I hand it to Dustin Long for choosing difficult texts to emulate and managing to be largely successful in applying their modes to his project. Even though Icelander isn’t as pointedly funny as The Third Policeman or as structurally refined as Pale Fire, few books are. Icelander is a worthy read for fans of those authors, but I hope for a much-improved second novel, one not so dominated by the spot-the-allusion game. If you’re on the edge on whether Icelander worth checking out, the hardcover edition of Icelander has a nicely embossed dust jacket–free cover and shames most of its neighbors on my bookshelf. Take that, secondhand D. H. Lawrence hardcovers.

That note provides a nice transition to my other recent read, Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, since its cover art was featured in Jay Ryan’s 100 Posters, 134 Squirrels: A Decade of Hot Dogs, Large Mammals, and Independent Rock, something I remembered when I saw it in the clearance section of Barnes and Noble. The Final Solution is about an elderly detective’s search for the missing parrot of a mute Jewish boy in 1944, but leaves many of its most successful themes simmering under the surface, foremost whether the detective is actually Sherlock Holmes. It’s a quick read and not as emotionally heavy as the title might suggest, but Chabon’s subtlety helps extent the book past its page count (131 including a handful of illustrations from Ryan).

Today's Inactive Lifestyles

Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Fatal Eggs. 104 pp.
Greene, Graham. The End of the Affair. 238 pp.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Ada. 626 pp.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Glory. 205 pp.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Laughter in the Dark. 292 pp.

The sparring of my two tasks—completing my initial reading list and tackling my newfound task of reading all of Nabokov’s novels—isn’t much of a match at this point, but I’m still chiseling away at both. The Fatal Eggs meets neither qualification, but in lieu of reading Flight and Bliss, I decided to read Bulgakov’s scientific/political satire. Like Heart of a Dog, the novella length prevents Bulgakov from truly inhabiting his characters, but allows for more direct cultural critique. The vision of enormous snakes crawling their way to Moscow could inspire a sequel to Snakes on a Plane (which I’m boycotting in theaters; I’d far prefer to go laugh at a movie when other people might possibly be taking it seriously, cough, Alien vs. Predator), but the social repercussion of scientific advances is still relevant. Worth the quick read.

The End of the Affair marks one of those awkward instances of having seen a film adaptation first (the 1999 Julianne Moore version; I’m not sure how well I could handle seeing a young Grand Moff Tarkin play Henry Miles), but that viewing was a few years ago and it didn’t taint the experience of the novel. Infidelity and jealousy have been fairly consistent themes in the Nabokov segment of this reading list, but the resounding sincerity and religious implications at work here made the two worlds seem almost entirely foreign. Those in charge of Greene’s collection at BC discussed how he received a deluge of letters from housewives pleading of his advice/permission for such illicit affairs, and could only respond with dry uniformity that he was, in fact, an author, and this story was not based on personal experience. Something tells me they didn’t believe him.

This round’s trio of Nabokov novels started with Ada and I’m not entirely sure where I stand on that novel yet, so I’ll keep my comments to a minimum. The gap between knowing I should reread a novel and chomping at the bit to do so divides Ada from Pale Fire, Bend Sinister, and Pnin, but at this point, I’ll call Ada a compelling, extended meditation and leave it there.

Glory has its moments—Martin’s fistfight with Darwin, the discussion of the value of various academic disciplines, Martin’s realization of his mutable nationality, and particularly its vague, compelling ending—but its drifting nature and (somewhat intentionally) bland characters take it down a notch.

Laughter in the Dark may lack some of the linguistic games and structural complications of Nabokov’s later novels, but once the primary relationship started, I tore through it like a man possessed. Despite his admitted distaste for dialogue, the dialogue, or more precisely, the tiny breathes of internal monologues poking through the dialogue, is where Laughter truly shines, honing its bleak tone to perfection. I understand why the Lolita comparisons arise, but the strength of Laughter is that tone rather than rapturous prose, separating the two novels somewhat significantly in my mind.

Tonight I'm Swimming to My Favorite Island

Five more books, zero from the list.

Banville, John. Ghosts. 245 pp.
Heaney, Seamus. The Burial at Thebes. 79 pp.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Invitation to a Beheading. 223 pp.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Transparent Things. 104 pp.
Sisario, Ben. Doolittle. 121 pp.

I picked up a handful of Banville’s novels on the cheap from Half.com when I ordered No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien, but Ghosts is the first of them that I’ve tackled. Banville’s weighty, wordy prose style and the slow-moving drifts of the subject matter are a bit of an odd combination, particularly without the narrative propulsion of Nabokov, but ruminating over the novel after the fact been rewarding, even if the actual reading experience seemed . Given that I just found out that this is the second book in a trilogy (along with The Book of Evidence and Athena, neither of which I own), some of my problems with the novel—foremost how the shadows of character development were both intriguing and somewhat infuriating—are thrown out of the window.

It’s tough to get away from Nabokov, in part because I keep picking up his novels from the library, the book store, or the library book sale, but this pair kept my momentum going. Transparent Things is a successful novella, relatively compelling in its brief length without seeming incomplete. Invitation to a Beheading covers some of the same thematic ground as Bend Sinister, but resides almost exclusively in the prison setting. It isn’t as griping or quite as allusive as that novel, and if you’re going to read one, Bend Sinister is the obvious pick, but Invitation is an excellent alternate pathway to travel. I’m stunned that I didn’t glance at the back cover before finishing the novel—I purchased the book after having read a brief description online—but completely thankful for this, as it gives away every major plot point in the novel. If not for Nabokov’s somewhat neurotic musings (this time it’s about how the novel is always thought of as being inspired by Kafka, yet Nabokov hadn’t read any Kafka prior to writing it), I’d be able to give up reading introductions, forewords, prefaces, et al, altogether.

Burial at Thebes takes an entirely different poetic approach than Heaney’s more famous translation/reimagining of Beowulf, cutting down on the kennings and emphasizing the readability and direct impact of the text for today’s political climate. In terms of his intentions, it’s successful, but the majority of translations lack the risk/reward factor of Heaney-wulf, especially this one given the contrast. Perhaps I’d have a different verdict if I had seen this performed, but if I’m itching to read some Heaney, it’s still going to be his poetry (North in particular) or his version of Beowulf.

Doolittle is the first entry from the 33 1/3 series that I’ve picked up (Loveless will likely be the next). Unlike some of the other books in the series—Joe Pernice’s semi-fictional prose for Meat Is Murder, for example—this is a fairly straightforward contextualization and explanation of the album’s time period, impact, and themes (primarily Surrealism). Sisario drove around with Frank Black, gathering notes and anecdotes, but perhaps the biggest remnant of this experience is a lingering reticence on the part of Black Francis to discuss the album in detail. The other members of the band have far less input—Kim Deal, as per usual, has none at all—but it’s still a worthwhile read. I really like the idea and aesthetic execution of the series, so hopefully the trend of covering albums I genuinely enjoy will continue.

Jon keeps telling me that I need to write a book for this series on Juno’s A Future Lived in Past Tense, but despite our mutual fondness for this record, I’m not sure if Continuum would be able to justify the expenditure. Juno fans seem to be remarkably rabid individuals, but they have not yet funded a grant for this project. The bittersweet thing about this line of jokes is that I would be both thrilled and somewhat prepared to write this book. If anyone wants to fund a 44 1/4 series covering the finest records from Juno, Shiner, Hum, Jawbox, Shudder to Think, and Castor, please do it.

Something Hyper

I’ve managed to finish five more books, only one of which made my original list. The likelihood of this practice continuing is fairly strong.

Bulgakov, Mikhail. The White Guard. 320 pp.
Maxwell, William. So Long, See You Tomorrow. 144 pp.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Despair. 176 pp.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin. 208 pp.
Nabokov, Vladimir. The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. 206 pp.

I started The White Guard last fall, but it didn’t hook me as much as The Master and Margarita, so it was cast aside in favor of my coursework. Naturally, it didn’t take long for me to get involved with the story this time around, as the combination of historical perspective and autobiographical insight gained momentum after the first quarter of the book. It’s a different reading experience than Master—there are no flights of fancy, rather a resounding core of familial loyalty—but it’s very close in execution and the best of this round.

I had tried reading So Long, See You Tomorrow after proofing a book on William Maxwell, but my attempt stalled before I had to return it to the Champaign library. If I’ve learned anything from my summer reading push, it’s that I’m rarely capable of coming back to a book that I’m not wholly invested in, particularly a “quiet” (the academic term for “non-eventful” or, more bluntly, “boring”) novel. I don’t think this book found its position between fiction and memory until the final few chapters—too much dry exposition in the build-up—but said position was worth returning to this book a few years later. Maxwell’s attempt to find the absent shades of human interaction in a newspaper recap of an unfortunate crime hits its mark when he finally embodies those involved and then rethinks his personal involvement (or lack thereof) in response to this fictionalization. I’m not sure if I’ll read any of his other novels, although I’ve always liked the title of Time Will Darken It, but I do have a collection of his short stories.

The trio of Nabokov books was largely arbitrary, decided by BC library availability and used copy selection. (Invitation to a Beheading and Ada are the next two I’d like to read; The Defense and Glory may take precedence given my newfound ownership of these titles.) The bittersweet wit of Pnin still lingers a few weeks after finishing it, as Nabokov succeeded with the postmodern frame of narrative usurpation and the sentimental resonance of the title character. It’s close behind the previous three Nabokov works I’ve read and high on my re-read pile. In some ways The Real Life of Sebastian Knight seemed like a dry run for the more involved authorial postmodernism of Pale Fire, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel. I’d rehash the main themes, but the back of the book does that better than most and I don’t want to plagiarize. Despair, however, broke my habit of not starting a new book before finishing my current title, because the first seventy pages confirmed Nabokov’s introductory note that though Hermann and Lolita’s Humbert Humbert are both “neurotic scoundrels,” “Hell shall never parole Hermann.” I don’t think that the book would have worked if Hermann had a more human core to his actions, but the one-sidedness of the moral landscape of the novel places it a notch below his other works. Despair’s foreword does provide a bit of a laugh when Nabokov notes how “a Communist reviewer (J. P. Sartre)” wrote “a remarkably silly article” about the book in 1939. Parenthesized, ouch. I’m going to try to slow down my personal Nabokov seminar for a bit while I spend time with other authors, but those four I mentioned above are effectively added to the big list.

My reading pace initially benefited from the conclusion of my summer research course, but then we drove through the Midwest for a week and a half, effectively killing that momentum. Driving and reading don’t mix well, but I enjoyed seeing the majority of the readers of this web site for the first time in months. Logging almost 3000 miles has its rewards—I’m trying to keep the veneer of insects on the front bumper as long as possible—but next time I think I’d prefer to Segway across America.

My record shopping adventures didn’t find a remarkable 2006 release that I’d somehow missed (although Cursive’s Happy Hollow has positioned itself in the “very good” stack), but I did manage to pick up some excellent records—a 180-gram LP of the Timeout Drawer’s Nowonmai, the Isis live 2LP, Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans LP, and a smattering of new and used CDs. I’ve been tempted to change my top 40 of the 2000s feature to include 2005 releases and some albums I overlooked (one of which I just mentioned!). Don’t wait around for that, but if you’ve been searching for the Signal Drench 100, here it is.

ExplodingNow! is Dusty’s new long-form blog to complement the more direct mp3 blogz0r. I recommend both. Bellevegas.com sells a wide selection of Belleville, Illinois related shirts and features Phil Baker as a model. If you’re looking for my super-secret mp3 directory, maybe you should check here. I'm trying to add more random, rare stuff as I go.

I’ve missed out on much of the NHL off-season excitement during my travels, but as a Red Wings fan, there really hasn’t been too much to get excited about. Steve Yzerman, my favorite athlete, retired, ending his brilliant career. His series-winning slap shot against the Blues in 1996 is my single favorite sports memory. I remember staying up late with my dad to watch the conclusion of that double overtime thriller and being almost as thrilled as Yzerman’s memorable celebration. Perhaps lost in that celebration is how that marked the first (and only) time that Yzerman had beaten Gretzky in a playoff series, having lost to the Oilers in 1987 and 1988. Yzerman’s retirement didn’t come as a surprise by any means, but given that he was the most dangerous player for most of the Wings’ first-round series against the Oilers, I thought that he might stick around. Shanahan moved to the Rangers for four million. Lidstrom is somehow making less money than Zdeno Chara. I’m still holding out hope that the Wings will swing a trade for Jean-Sebastien Giguere or Martin Biron (a trade not involving Kronwall, thanks) and crossing my fingers that Ken Holland doesn’t invest in Belfour or Hasek. I’d rather have Legace back than either of those guys; even if Legace is an easy scapegoat for a disappointing first round, he didn’t implode like Hasek or suffer injuries and setbacks like Belfour.

It Crushes by Grinding

Occasionally I fill dead spots in my afternoons by updating my Amazon recommendations. If nothing else, it’s a slight boost of pride when I already own six of the ten items on a given page. But this item, however, I do not own. “Recommended because you said you owned Punch-Drunk Love” is 1989’s Going Overboard, which I have, in fact, not seen, an amazing feat given its positive reviews and box office success. This is not an isolated incident, but the cover just seemed so out of place amid my other recommendations. Amazon, just because I own a James Joyce biography from the Penguin Lives series does not mean that I would be interested in a similarly profile of Pope John XXIII.

As for my summer reading, I’ve finished the following books (in this order). I decided to start with some shorter novels to build momentum and to largely disregard sticking to my initial list in favor of new purchases and library loans.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. 315 pp.
Beckett, Samuel. Watt. 255 pp.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Bend Sinister. 241 pp.
Bulgakov, Mikhail. Heart of a Dog. 123 pp.
McGahern, John. The Dark. 191 pp.

Out of these, I think the Nabokov novels are the most compelling, and if pressed to pick a favorite, I would probably choose Bend Sinister. Unsurprisingly, I’m already onto my next Nabokov, Pnin, and have Despair in the queue. The Bulgakov doesn’t quite match The Master and Margarita, but it has some particularly funny moments, unlike the unpublished Flann O’Brien television plays that I read yesterday. (I’m not including school-related readings or research.) Watt courses with dark humor, but the iterations of every conceivable logical end wore thin and reminded me too much of Gertrude Stein. I also picked up Murphy, but at this point I’m more interested in re-reading his postwar “trilogy,” so it may be a while before I get to it. Finally, the McGahern is an interesting coming-of-age narrative and I certainly grasped what controversial elements led to its banning, but it lacked the comforting rural insularity of By the Lake (That They May Face the Rising Sun abroad).

My goal by reporting these isn’t necessarily to impart any academic insight (I’m actually trying to avoid doing this) or to puff out my chest in a “Look what I’m reading” manner (if anything, I’m embarrassed that I haven’t read most of these yet), but more to have something to report and to keep pushing myself to get through my initial list this summer. Between reading, the NHL and NBA finals, and the World Cup, I haven’t had much time to watch any movies lately, my vocal malaise over this year’s musical output has limited record reviews or summaries, and there’s almost nothing worth watching on television in the summer.

Summer Reading List

Between recommended readings from class, suggestions from friends, and stray pick-ups along the way, I’ve accumulated a stockpile of presumably excellent books that I’ll probably never make it through during the school year. This is evidence by a number of bookmarks in these novels, typically around page 60, but I’m starting from page one unless it was a recent failed endeavor. I recognize that in all likelihood I won’t finish a third of these, but at the very least, it’s good to have a literary to-do list for future use, as well. And if I actually read all of these, rest assured there are more possibilities.

Banville, John. The Untouchable. 368 pp.
Bulgakov, Mikhail. The White Guard. 320 pp.
Bulgakov, Mikhail. Flight and Bliss. 158 pp.
Bulgakov, Mikhail. Heart of a Dog. 123 pp.
Calvino, Italo. If on a winter’s night a traveler. 260 pp.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. 326 pp.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. 261 pp.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. 326 pp.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender Is the Night. 315 pp.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. 333 pp.
Greene, Graham. The End of the Affair. 238 pp.
Kafka, Franz. The Castle. 481 pp.
Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. 296 pp.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. 315 pp.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Haunted. 404 pp.
Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. 760 pp.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. 561 pp.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Age of Reason.
Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 204 pp.
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. 232 pp.

As expected, this list is subject to change and to gross negligence.