• Commentary

    Marcelle Sauvageot

    Some ballads begin as your letter does: ‘You, whom I’ve loved so much…’ This past tense, with the present still resounding so close, is as sad as the ends of parties, when the lights are turned off and you remain alone, watching the couples go off into the dark streets. It’s over: nothing else is to be expected, and yet you stay there indefinitely, knowing that nothing more will happen. You have notes like a guitar’s; at times, like a chorus that repeats: ‘I could not have given you happiness.’ It’s an old song from long ago, like a dried flower…Does the past become an old thing so quickly?

    Sauvageot wrote Commentary in a sanitarium not long before her death...more

  • Winter in the Blood

    James Welch

    In some ways a bleak novella, Welch’s writing is so elegant that I found this hard to put down, even when the sadness felt very deep. Since it’s a largely interior story from the perspective of a self-destructive guy, it rambles and dips into the past in ways that only heighten a sense of being lost. It takes a while to find out what factors from the past are actually playing out in the wayward adventures of his present. The most profound revelation near the end is largely unexpected and speaks to the power of stories, and yet how easily they can be lost.

    Louis Erdrich wrote the introduction to this edition, starting out by saying that it should have...more

  • The Spectator Bird

    Wallace Stegner

    I can’t say I was at all familiar with Stegner when I found this book on a giveaway pile with two books that I loved. This could be a rather melancholy book to some as it’s written by a retired literary agent supposedly cajoled into penning his memoirs at his wife’s behest, despite feeling this “implies an arrogance, or confidence, or compulsion to justify oneself” that he doesn’t claim. But I think ultimately there is a sense of resigned hope, even if he does start out describing himself like this:

    As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event

  • Lila

    Marilynne Robinson

    The only other Marilynne Robinson book I’ve read is the only one that doesn’t involve this same group of characters in Gilead, Iowa. Though the third in that series, Lila definitely can stand alone. From what I’ve read, this is somewhat of a retelling of at least parts of the same stories found in the other two, just from a different character’s perspective — instead of sewing contrasting points of view in one story, Robinson gives them entire books. While part of me is interested to read the others, I so enjoyed reading from Lila’s perspective that I’m a little hesitant to take on a different angle. I suspect I’ve already read the book that I will like the most.

    At times...more

  • Inferno

    Eileen Myles

    Sometimes I’m surprised when it’s hard to write about books I really like, not being able to pinpoint what it is that I appreciate about them. It seems it should be easy when you’ve enjoyed something. Inferno is subtitled “a poet’s novel,” but also is kind of a memoir; it defies that straightforward categorization that makes it easy to synopsize. Other people have described it as “messy” or “slippery,” and, despite having qualities of a coming-of-age story, it zigzags through time and avoids the strictly linear framework — or even that postmodern, multilinear progression where the story steadily moves back and forth between eras, still in a forward-like movement — that you might expect. When I look back on what I’ve been reading over...more

  • Speedboat

    Renata Adler

    Over the past year, Speedboat kept coming up over and over, referenced in essays and other books, recommended by friends. While it’s called a novel, it’s so fragmented that any disconnected arcs are hard to link in any meaningful way. I found it pleasurable to read, despite the challenge of it. By the end I found some sense of cohesiveness, though not in any traditional sense; it might have been more that I finally stopped resisting any attempt to find hidden threads that exposed the logic under these groupings of seemingly mundane anecdotes. It’s similar to Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, but probably more jarring in its disjointedness.

    The wallflower sat reading in the Paris restaurant. There used to be

  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

    Haruki Murakami

    I might have skipped this Murakami novel, underwhelmed by the past few, but then Patti Smith reviewed it for The New York Times, sparking some interest with this description:

    This is a book for both the new and experienced reader. It has a strange casualness, as if it unfolded as Murakami wrote it; at times, it seems like a prequel to a whole other narrative. The feel is uneven, the dialogue somewhat stilted, either by design or flawed in translation. Yet there are moments of epiphany gracefully expressed, especially in regard to how people affect one another. “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,” Tsukuru comes to understand. “They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds.

  • A Book of Common Prayer

    Joan Didion

    In the realm of novels by Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays seems to be the crowd favorite, but after reading that one I didn’t feel incredibly compelled to read another of hers. I suppose I needed one to appear at the right time, and so it did when I was buying some books for vacation and found a remaindered import of this one. It’s a cleanly honed story, narrated by an American expatriate living in the fictional Central American country. While this character is interesting enough in her own right, her focus is bearing witness to another norteamericana who found her way to Boca Grande. Within the first few paragraphs she summarizes:

    Here is what happened: she

  • Too Much Happiness

    Alice Munro

    I’ve read so many of Alice Munro’s stories, some of which were pre-booklog and some that I didn’t bother to write up at the time. This collection feels like a particularly strong batch of stories, if a bit more vicious overall, compared to other collections — so much death and injury!

    The highlight is definitely the story that won the title, “Too Much Happiness,” which is about the Russian mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky. Munro explains in the acknowledgments that she discovered Sophia while researching something else and then commenced reading everything she could find about her — in particular she notes that Little Sparrow “enthralled [her] beyond all others.”

    The story recounts the last days of Sophia’s life, with a few earlier...more

  • The Sound of Things Falling

    Juan Gabriel Vásquez

    Jolted by memories triggered by an escaped hippopotamus from the abandoned zoo that was once owned by the drug lord Pablo Escobar, a man recollects on a series of events that altered his life to such a traumatic degree that he struggled to cope years later. Though the story is focused on this law professor named Antonio who unwittingly started a friendship with an older man while playing billiards in the afternoon after his lectures, it shows how the drug wars, especially in the early years of the 1980s, affected people in Colombia, even those not directly tied to the drug trade. Antonio’s hesitant friendship with Laverde eventually lead to him being beside him when gun toting motorcyclists shot him...more