Thursday, August 27, 2009

Summer reading update, II

Birds of America, Lorrie Moore

I've been reading a lot of short stories lately; I attribute this to intellectual laziness -- the form is inherently middlebrow and readable-in-bed -- and the fact that, because I never got into the form, there's a lot of excellent stuff I haven't read. (Alice Munro, for example.) There's a canned still-life-y quality to a lot of otherwise good stories (recent Trevor, Updike) that I find off-putting, but fortunately, Lorrie Moore doesn't go in for this at all. In one of these stories, a woman dying of lung cancer buys a new house with her adulterous husband and ends up shooting the ex-gardener who's taken to robbing couples (incl. this one) while asking them to sing duets. In another, a girl with Romanian parents ends up as a librarian (or something, I read this one a while ago) and has her love affair disintegrate into a hilarious pile of Tom Swifties. And so on. The writing is generally taut and occasionally brilliant, generally less lyrical than Trevor or Enright, but there is some brilliant imagery -- like the cancer, "dismantling as it came."

Cheating at Canasta, Collected Stories, After Rain, William Trevor

It's odd that Trevor, by critical consensus the best or 2nd-best short story writer around, isn't better known. I mildly prefer his old work (in the Collected of '92) to the more recent stuff, which tends towards elegy and occasionally maudlinness. There are tons of Trevor stories, most of which I haven't read, but I think it's fair to say that he tends to do one of three things. First there are the extended prose poems ("Cheating at Canasta," "After Rain") that are usually about loss and sometimes ("Cheating") come off and are spectacular. Second there are the slightly grotesque comic slices-of-life (here's a good example) that have been getting less funny and less interesting over the years but are still really good. Third there are stories about vaguely upperclass Irish Protestants and their rather stiff ways -- Trevor's an Irish Prot and knows a lot about these people -- and these are stark, sentimental, or a slightly revolting combination of the two.

Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark

This is a peculiar novel, a kind of pomo autobiography. On the whole it's worthwhile but it isn't The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or The Girls of Slender Means. The narrator is a female novelist who's trying to make ends meet as she finishes her first novel, in around 1950, which is approximately (but not quite) when Spark was a hard-up female novelist writing her first novel. She's also a Catholic, as Spark was. In the novel she finds a job as a secretary for the Autobiographical Association, a six-person group that its leader, Quentin Oliver, ends up turning into a cult of paranoid speed addicts, partly under the influence of the narrator's novel which he manages to steal. (This is all quite entertaining.) The plot interestingly resembles that of Spark's first novel, The Comforters, in which another Spark-like character discovers that her life is being typed out as a novel by a ghost with an irritatingly loud typewriter. It's been years since I read The Comforters, so I can't really develop the parallel, but I can't really decide whether Loitering is deliberately recalling The Comforters or if it's just that all Spark novels with Spark-like characters use the same metafictional devices.

A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon's first novel, The curious incident of the dog in the nighttime, a crime story of sorts with an autistic narrator, was generally well-reviewed and a bestseller. A Spot has many of the same virtues, but isn't as good a novel. The basic plot goes something like this: a retired middle-class man slowly loses his mind because he thinks he has a tumor (which is in fact just eczema) around the time his daughter's to marry someone he disapproves of. Around this time he accidentally walks in on his wife having sex with an ex-coworker, which doesn't help. The book is at its best when it tries to get inside the old guy's head, but the other characters aren't terribly interesting and -- esp. the gay son and his problems finding true love -- take up too much of the plot.

When you are engulfed in flames, David Sedaris

Sedaris is going to read here in Oct, so his stuff was available discounted at the bookshop. I liked this book a fair bit; the anecdote about Sedaris and the local pedophile in Normandy was especially good, as was the one with the obstreperous old woman who's Sedaris's neighbor in New York.

The first three books of Rabelais, trans. Thomas Urquhart

Urquhart's 17th cent. translation of Rabelais is a delightful bit of Renaissance writing in its own right -- it's a triumph of phrasing and of filthiness, two things that are quite close to my heart. Apart from a wonderfully evocative rendition of dialogue overheard at a party, the first few chapters are a little hard to get into. However, once we're past Gargantua's childhood, the book swiftly gets more readable; Rabelais is fond of lists, and some of them go on for many pages, but 1. it's obvious where they end, and 2. they're quite entertaining in their own right. The plot is without suspense -- Gargantua and Pantagruel always win -- and is mostly just a vehicle for the gags, which are generally hilarious. This might be the best book I've read in a while.

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