Reading In a Time of COVID19 (Part 2)

on Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Ok, ok. I heard you. And yes, I know how many people see Stephen King's mega-brick as the pinnacle of pandemic literature. Not to mention the BIG BOOK to end all BIG BOOKs. But would you believe that it took me a few minutes to remember whether or not I'd actually read it? And then about ten seconds more to find my review? So without further ado, and with the caveat that I'm actually quite a fan of King's, here's what I wrote back in February, 2013:

Allow me to distill this monster epic to its essence. A moderately scary guy picked up from the cutting room floor of a Cormac McCarthy novel goes to war with my great great grandmother in an America ravaged by a killer flu. Cue Armageddon Americana. The end. Widely considered King's greatest work, The Stand is reasonably engaging but about 800 pages too long. I'm surprised Peter Jackson has resisted making it into a trilogy.

Oh well... back to irregular programming!

I've been thinking a lot about other books that might be worth reading during these strange times. Three more categories sprang to mind overnight (can't say I've been sleeping all that well at the moment). I mean, we may be in this for a long, long time. Might as well try to knock off a few bucket list books while we can.

THE ISOLATED FEW (That Aren't Beckett, Marquez or Murakami)
First, in keeping with the general sense of malaise we've all been feeling, some plague-adjacent novels that deal with themes of isolation, quarantine and loneliness.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. A hugely life affirming, utterly gorgeous novel about a woman who locks herself away during a civil war and translates literary classics into Arabic. It's the book about loneliness and the intrinsic value of life you didn't know you had to read.

Caribou Island by David Vann. Although not focused on a solitary character left alone, this bleak survival story of a couple on the frozen Alaskan plains still manages to plumb the depths of isolation with chilling (sorry) power.

Euphoria by Heinz Helle. Speaking of bleak, this story of man versus man versus the brutality of nature is what I like to think of as The Road minus any prospect of redemption.

This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun. A political prisoner is kept in an underground cell, not much bigger than a grave, for thirteen years. Jelloun's novel is a marvel, pitting the human spirit against extreme, solitary deprivation.

The Door by Magda Szabo Oh how I love this book. While not about isolation as such, it without equal when it comes to questioning how we "other" those we deem to be beneath us.

Anything by Thomas Bernhard. When it comes to misanthropic works of human isolation, few are as unforgiving as the novels of Bernhard. It takes a brave soul to wade into the swamp of his sentences, but if you're game, you'll be greatly rewarded (albeit it a kind of horrific and painful way). Of particular relevance is Frost, Correction, Gargoyles and The Lime Works.

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell The existential dread born of dislocation underpin this splendid novel about obsession and the human need for connection in what ever form one can claw it. Again, not exactly on point, but absolutely extraordinary for what it says about being alone in a strange place.

The Tenant by Roland Topor Another take on the mental collapse brought about by isolation, The Tenant is rightly considered a masterpiece of claustrophobic solitude. Polanski made a good movie of it, but nothing compares with the sheer brilliance and horror of the novel itself. In my all-time Top 5.

LEGENDS OF THE LONG FORM (That Aren't Tolstoy or Joyce)
If there was ever a time to hit those huge classics you've always meant to read, surely it must be now. There are so many to choose from, but these are a few of my favourites.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo Granted you'll probably find yourself breaking into song every few scenes, Les Mis is a remarkably readable epic of poverty and revolution in France. I could hardly believe how quickly I raced through its fifty million pages.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Okay so you might sing one or two songs along the way (what is it with classics and their musical adaptations???), but you'll most certainly be enchanted by the windmill-conquering adventures of the lunatic knight and his trusty sidekick. Weighing in at five thousand Les Mises, it'' take you a long while to get through, but I guarantee you'll be glad you did.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville A rip roaring adventure and a deeply detailed lesson on flensing in one, Moby Dick could probably have done with a huge edit, but you'll hardly care when you're standing with harpoon ready, sea spray whipping your face, waiting for the white whale to surface.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil A book so stupidly huge that it's usually published in two or three volumes, The Man Without Qualities depicts life amidst the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Sounds gripping, right? Well, believe it or not it is. And the four billion gazillion pages fly by.

The Brothers Ashkenazi by IJ Singer Moving a bit forward in time... you're probably familiar with Isaac Bashevis Singer but not many remember his brother, Israel Joshua, who, in my opinion, was the better writer. This sprawling family saga is about as perfect they get. Another in my all-time Top 10.

Saville by David Storey Thought I'd go out on a limb here and add a forgotten Booker winner to the pile of classics. Storey is hardly spoken of in the same breath as Hugo or Cervantes, but Saville has a decidedly Dickensian air to it and so ought to sit alongside the others.

And the one I haven't read: Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman. I know a few people who consider this the greatest novel ever written. I'll get to it one day but I'm not sure I have the emotional fortitude to join Grossman on the front right now.

SERIES TO BINGE READ (That Aren't Proust, Powell, Mantel, Kanusgaard or Ferrante)

Netflix and its ilk have made us accustomed to binge watching countless series, one after the other, ad infinitum. Flicking through the various streaming services, I used to be all like, "Arghhhhh, how am I ever going to watch all this?" Now, only a couple of weeks into the pandemic, I'm more like, "Ah, crap. I've watched every episode of every show ever. Give me some books." So if, like me, you like losing yourself in a single world over the course of multiple novels, you might want to check out these.

The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy Sure, he's written my favourite post-apocalyptic book of all time, but McCarthy is best known for single-handedly inventing the Western noir. The three novels that make up the Border Trilogy (All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain) are each superb in their own right, but read together they make up an extraordinary feat of narrative bravado, with descriptive splendour and a fair dose of human tenderness to boot.

The Notebook Trilogy by Agota Kristof There's a current of abject brutality that runs through Kristof's chilling masterpiece of children set loose in a land ravaged by war. The three books (The Notebook, The Proof and The Third Lie) differ stylistically, clearly designed to offer alternative angles on the same theme. It all gets a little confusing in the middle, but when you come out the other side.... hoooo-weeee.... Mind. Blown.

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias I'd rate The Infatuations as one of the greatest European novels of the 21st century. Go and read that. But when you're done, it's well worth checking out Marias's three book sequence (Fever and Spear, Dance and Dream and Poison, Shadow and Farewell). Steeped in intriguing philosophical concepts, it is also a bloody great adventure with all the undercurrents of crime and international intrigue that make Marias one of the most accessible literary reads.

The History of Bestiality by Jens Bjorneboe If you really want to wallow, Bjorneboe is your guy. He is one of the most confronting and difficult authors I've ever encountered, but spending the time working through his novels (they're actually quite short) is endlessly rewarding. But be warned: the story (likely apocryphal) goes that, when embarking on this trilogy (Moment of Freedom, Powderhouse, and The Silence), Bjorneboe said that by the time he was finished he'd know so much about man's capacity for inhumanity to his fellow man that he would no longer be able to live in this world. When the third one was done, he killed himself.

The Jesus Trilogy by JM Coetzee If I may quote myself from last year: "taken together, the three books (The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus and The Death of Jesus) are remarkably enigmatic - but I think Coetzee is asking this: Stripped of the things that we consider fundamental to personhood - a name, an identity, a home, family, friends, language, control over our minds and bodies, longevity, community, etc. - is there some intrinsic value in having lived?" TL;DNR: Just read it.

The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett Sometimes all you need is a good laugh, and nobody makes me laugh as heartily or consistently as Pratchett. The Discworld series has about seventy billion books, so they'll keep you occupied and overjoyed throughout. A much needed antidote to these shitty times.

Well, that's about it for my pandemic reading recommendations coverage for now. Hope to see you back here, where I'll be returning to regular programming in the coming days.

Reading In a Time of COVID19 (Part 1)

on Monday, March 23, 2020
And just like that, the world changed.

Needless to say, the new normal is shit. Who would have thought that in 2020 we'd be locked in our homes, steering clear of one another, anxiously waiting to get a sense of quite how catastrophic this oncoming plague is likely to actually be. Hope resides in a combination of the ancient and the modern: physical isolation and medical science. To that end, sending a huge shout out to all who have tried not to be #COVIDIOTS and, most importantly, the essential workers on the frontline. No doubt this has made us reconsider how we ought to be valuing the different levels of the so-called societal strata.

One thing that has become increasingly apparent is the importance of reading at this time. It is not just a luxury but a damn necessity. To pass time. To stay sane. To be communal, to find new friends while separated from our communities. In the coming days and weeks, I'll try fill this blog with new short reviews and musings to point you in the direction of great reads. But for now, just a couple of recommendation posts, starting with these two lists - Pandemic Reads and Big Books To Live In. And whether you're turning to e-reading, rifling through your piles of unread books or availing yourself of all the wonderful indie bookstores that are staying open and delivering books to your door without you having to partake in any person-to-person contact just remember the new mantra. STAY SAFE. STAY HOME. STAY KIND.

For some people this might be cutting it too close. But if you are up for reading how some of the world's finest writers have considered life as we are currently experienced it, look no further than these extraordinary novels.
The Plague by Albert Camus.
Blindness by Jose Saramago
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Light by Torgny Lindgren
Nemesis by Phillip Roth
The Last Town of Earth by Thomas Mullen
The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian
The Trespassers by Meg Mundell
Severance by Ling Ma
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

If you're more inclined to escape this whole clusterfuck and lose yourself in a great, big book, then here are a few of my absolute favourite 400+ pagers, with links to the ones I've reviewed or discussed on this blog.
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray (490 pp, but close enough and too good not to include here)
The Slaughterman's Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits (525pp)
Europe Central by William T. Vollamn(832pp)
The Tunnel by William H. Gass (652pp)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (848pp)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (639pp)
Underworld by Don Delillo (827pp)
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (662pp)

Might you brave Laszlo Krasznahorkai's Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming (512pp) before I do? Or might this be the time you finally trudge your way through the holy grail of literary bricks, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace(1077pp)? Whatever you choose, keep up the mantra: STAY SAFE. STAY HOME. STAY KIND.

And be sure to check back in a couple of days for more book-nerdy tips!

The Battle of the Book Behemoths

on Monday, March 2, 2020
Like just about every other reader on the planet, I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of the last instalment in Hilary Mantel's Cromwell Trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. Unlike many others, I have the somewhat daunting distinction of not having read any of them. Yes, knowing from the outset that it would be told over the course of three books, I decided to wait until they'd all been published then go at them as one. While that sounds kind of piggish and silly (and I admit it is), at least I didn't quite do what a friend of mine did, holding off for all the Knausgaard books to be translated before embarking on them (he even toyed with learning Norwegian as it would probably be quicker). What I hadn't anticipated, of course, is quite how long each book would be. Wolf Hall kicked things off with 675 pages. Bring Up the Bodies was a relative novella at 432. And now... gulp... along comes The Mirror and the Light, which breaks the scales at over 900 pages. So that's about twenty-four billion pages I have ahead of me, in a single sequential stretch.

Not that I'm complaining. It is, however, indicative of a very clear trend: the big book is well and truly back. I say this as I'm halfway through Colm McCann's new novel, Apeirogon (a mind-bending addition to the "i" before "e" except after "c" rule exceptions), which, at 457 pages, is seriously hurting my wrist. Meanwhile, Yaniv Iczkovits's incredible novel, The Slaughterman's Daughter, has also finally found its way to the English-speaking world in what, I must say, is one of the most stunning aesthetic carapaces I've seen in just about forever. That's another 500 pages (every one of which I relished last year when I read it in proof form). And so they keep coming. Just look at my bookshelf!

I have yet to brave Krasznahorkai's brick. And I'm dying to read Tyll, after all the raves it's been getting. So much for my annual tally clocking 200 books. Maybe I need to shift to page counts instead!