The Part About the Blog

Another free "first reads" book; another unfocused, multi-sentence review. This time it's Roberto Bolaño's 893-page murder epic 2666.

There's probably no way I would have read this book had it not been mailed to my house free of charge. I'd passed it over at the library and half-heartedly listened to or read others' thoughts. I'd been turned off by the cavalier poets of The Savage Detectives and dry, repetitive "humor" of Nazi Literature in the Americas. It seemed to me Bolaño treated literature like some bad ass X-Games sport, which, as much as I love it, it ain't. (Incidentally, neither is cooking, sorry Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain).

Here, despite the book's length, Bolaño has dialed back the things that annoyed me (or at least split them up and distributed them amongst a greater number of characters). The first book focused on obsession and passion as the 4 critics pursued, as academics do, the creative spirit in the least creative of ways. From there 2666 spirals into an exploration of madness (Amalfitano), anchorless paranoia (Fate's trip an aimless binge in Santa Teresa), and eventually death ("The Part About the Crimes"). In those areas, 2666 seemed like a more serious Mexican cousin of Gravity's Rainbow, with some of the lawless dread of Oakley Hall's Warlock or the show Deadwood. The fifth book ended well but I thought that going back to WWII to start was too much of a reset and some of the life stories of people Archimboldi encountered reminded me of the parts of Bolaño books I don't like.

Bolaño, like Jonathan Lethem, is able to make his fictional artists seem familiar and also fits in some shout-outs to his favorites (here: David Lynch and Marcel Duchamp).

I suspect a little bit of the overwhelming praise of this book is due to the Entourage/30 Rock effect (critics/industry folk like things that explore their own world), and "the Part About the Critics" and the mystical "Archimboldi" himself definitely feed that, but there's plenty to enjoy here. Good work dead guy.


Photo Finish

I'm too lazy to write up my notes on McEllroy's Women and Men. I finished it in early September and haven't been able to think of anything to say. Plus I didn't really like it so here's a picture of my thoughts on a post(modern)-it.

I was motivated enough to pile up the books and pose for a photograph before going out to dinner (to celebrate my birthday; not my reading accomplishments).

Now I'm gonna relax so I don't succumb to a rap attack:



John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy proved a pretty quick big read once you get used to the different narrative elements he uses (3 or 4 plane rides/plenty of airport and hotel time also help).

I'm not sure I liked it (them?) as much as Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer which was able to fit in a lot of the same themes into one volume with less characters, while admittedly only really focusing on NYC. Parts were amazing: Mac in The 42nd Parallel was an interesting Ulysses Everett McGill-type, the "all is lost" Camera Eye (50) section gave context to labor struggles of the time, and the biographical section on the Unknown Soldier was the strongest of the many biographies of contemporary figures including Edison, T. Roosevelt, Frank Lloyd Wright, Woodrow Wilson and others. The main sections that focused on different character studies were distinct until about halfway through 1919 (the book and, i guess, the year) when the characters voices got a little too similar and just started to serve as surrogates to experience the events of the early 20th Century. That being said, the trilogy does lead the reader through the major events of the American 20th Century, including enough labor issues to make Howard Zinn proud.

So of course that means only one more book, Joseph McEllroy's Women & Men, which according to this post on the excellent LA Times book blog, Jacket Copy, is one and a half times as long as War & Peace. Shit.


Mason & Dixon & Update

Most recently read and most impossible to summarize, Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. Structurally it's similar to Barth's Sot-Weed Factor in that it's a post-modern novel written in an 18th century style. Pynchon went all out with random capitalization and olde-tyme spellings. Overall, it's a good book about friendship through shared circumstances, but it shines in its craziness. The book includes a talking dog and a mechanical duck that carries grudges. It also includes these two ridiculous anachronisms:

- An Englishman, just returned from a trip to Italy is eager to introduce his pubmates to a fantastic new dish he discovered there (pizza). Unable to find dough, tomato and cheese, they made do with stilton cheese, anchovies, and "ketjup," on a loaf of brown bread. Que delicioso!

- Friggin' Popeye: "That is, 'I am that which I am,' " helpfully translates a somehow nautical-looking Indiv. with gigantick Fore-Arms, and one Eye ever a-Squint from the Smoke of his Pipe.

Pynchon continues his infatuation with silly names for the non-historically accurate characters, particularly the narrator Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke. Also, I bet you didn't know George Washington had a black, Jewish slave chef. I liked the book and there's a lot more where that came from but my brain has been taxed enough already. I'm gonna go read some Calvin & Hobbes.

I'm almost done so here's an update to make this post look longer:
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1,079p) 1.14.09
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (721p) 1.26.09
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn (729p) 2.3.09
Rabbit Angstrom by John Updike (1,516p) 2.16.09
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (776p) 3.7.09
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (704p) 3.14.09
The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer (1056p) 3.22.09
Ulysses by James Joyce (768p) 3.29.09
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (720p) 4.5.09
The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth (819p) 4.18.09
The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz (992p) 5.2.09
The Early Stories: 1953-1975 by John Updike (864p) 5.3.09
The Complete Novels (At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman, The Poor Mouth, The Hard Life, and The Dalkey Archive) by Flann O'Brien (787p) 5.19.09
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (853p) 6.3.09
The Recognitions by William Gaddis (956p) 6.24.09
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (706p) 7.8.09
Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon (773p) 7.23.09
The USA Trilogy (The 42nd Parallel 8.5.09, 1919, and The Big Money) by John Dos Passos (1,144p in 3 volumes)
Women and Men by Joseph McElroy (1192p)


"You've Always Been the Caretaker"

Next up was Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. It was an interesting spin on the standard bildungsroman where instead of traveling to have the world of culture, art, and philosophy revealed to him, Hans Castorp stays in one place and has all of WWI Europe visit. He's the same kind of naive weiner as Philip Carey and Augie March, but Thomas Mann seems to be having more fun with him. From the moment of his arrival at the sanatorium to visit his cousin, Mann puts Castorp in a Catch-22-like paradox where he must prove his wellness to leave, then eventually demands to stay once he's well enough to go. As the situation goes on and on it becomes less funny and takes on more of a creepy, Shining-like inevitable trap where the passage of time gets blurrier and blurrier. Thankfully Castrop alternates between the old fashioned young dope extremes of unjustified indignation and cockeyed optimism, keeping most of the 700 pages fairly fun.

There are a ton of symbolic characters in the book (more than half of which sailed over my post-war head). My favorites were the ever arguing and politically opposed duo of Settembrini and Naphta who I took to be early 20th Century representations of Bill O'Reilly and Al Franken:

Two loudmouths who really can't live without each other. A love story as old as time itself...
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