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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

April Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello

This 1929 novel by Italian writer Luigi Pirandello is the story about a man named Vitangelo Moscarda who undergoes somewhat of an identity crisis. It begins with his wife Dida mentioning that his nose tilts to the right a little bit. This simple, seemingly innocuous statement sends Moscarda into a downward spiral; everything he thought he knew about himself, his image, his identity, how he and how others perceive him, is completely obliterated. And the rest of the novel is the documentation of his devolution into despondency and violence (and freedom) that ends in a surprising, ironic, eerily enlightening denouement.

Moscarda’s descent, narrated in first and second-person, is about self-perception, and in particular the divide (and subsequently the connection) between varying perceptions of a singular self. It’s a bit like Plato’s theory of forms applied to people. How I view myself vs how you and everyone else view me. However, within the development of that ontological discourse (this idea of identity as performance) many other topics arise, such as: personae, code switching, solitude, reality, time, ancestry, body dysmorphia, semiotics, religion, solipsism, insecurity, absurdity, mind/body duality, consciousness, and plenty more. The result is a wonderfully entertaining and poignantly pre-postmodern portrait of deconstruction, both linguistically and psychologically. This one was a beautiful trip.

The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt

This 1968 novel by Argentine author Roberto Arlt follows the despondent Remo Erdosain who, having hit rock bottom after getting fired from his job and his wife leaving him for another man, joins a ragtag group of radicals that, discontent with present socioeconomic norms, plan to incite a social, political, and cultural revolution by engineering a series of catastrophic events and inspiring a new religion. Needless to say, it is a group of madmen, however, though it be madness, indeed there is method in it, and Erdosain quickly comes to learn that his road to redemption is paved with violence, deceit, and insanity.

If you were to cross Crime and Punishment, Fight Club, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and then inject into that product themes of rebellion and a whole lot of anguish, you might have something that resembles this book. It is the opposite of a comeback story; it is a portrait of a descent into madness on a scale that ranges from man to civilization, crossing and connecting a litany of complicated ideas. Arlt captivates with vivid description and unique characters. Also, it’s told by way of a frame narrative, a story within a story. Exciting, philosophical, base, comedic, and insightful. There’s a sequel which I’ll certainly pick up and read at some point.

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This 1774 epistolary debut novel by German novelist and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is the semi-autobiographical tale of the short happy life of Werther, an artistic and intellectual young man who, while on vacation in the small town of Walheim, falls in love with a young woman named Charlotte, nicknamed Lotte, who is engaged to another man. What unfolds, written in the first-person through a series of letters addressed to a friend Wilheim, is a beautiful, charming, enchanting tale of unrequited love that ends in tragedy.

The novel is an undisputed classic. Critically acclaimed upon its release, it thrust Goethe, at the time age 24, into the limelight as one of Germany’s most significant literary figures. Napoleon is said to have boasted that he read the novel over a hundred times. The novel is a product of the proto-romantic literary era of Germany which in turn influenced countless authors and novels afterward. And that is no surprise as the novel is truly a masterpiece. The writing is absolutely incredible; Goethe ropes in the reader with vivid, relatable, interesting characters whose inter-relational dynamics pull and push with overflowing empathy. The emotions invoked in this short tale are hundredfold and intense, and beautiful all the while. It is a delight and a heartache, and one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.

Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin

This 1995 epistolary novel by Taiwanese writer Qiu Miaojin is the autobiographical account of a love ending in tragedy. Told through a series of letters by an unnamed narrator addressed to an ex-lover, each entry is a vignette of her life in Paris, Taipei, and Tokyo in the early 90’s, painted with quotidian details and imbued with the poignant musings of an intelligent, creative young artist. And each is a searing shard of a mosaic that completed depicts vividly a beautifully tragic and undeniably complicated relationship between two young women.

It’s been described as the modern, Taiwanese, LGBT version of The Sorrows of Young Werther, however, it is far more tragic as it is not a work of fiction. The book was published posthumously as Miaojin took her life at age 26. The letters that comprise the novel are her final works; the last words she had written. And they document the turmoil, anguish, and pain that she was experiencing in her final months. It is her own suicide note and simultaneously an unrelenting portrait of heartbreak, depression, and a deep sorrow expressed in brutal honesty and incredible eloquence. She writes with a seizing and affecting melancholia, an empathy that suffocates. It is with difficulty that one keeps reading, but in doing so, experiences a story so moving, so heart-wrenching, so incredible, that it is inspires, invigorates, and serves as a cruel reminder of the bridge that connects love and pain, life and death.

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

This 1958 fifth novel by American author Jack Kerouac follows Ray Smith, an intellectual and artistically inclined young man who joins up his friend Japhy Ryder out on the west coast during the 50’s. Ryder is a bizarre, mysterious, open-minded, courageous, intelligent, and devoutly spiritual young man who practices Zen Buddhism and introduces Smith to the religion. The book follows their journey, both physical and spiritual, through all its wild twists and turns, all the while expounding themes of spirituality, nature, freedom, anarchism, introspection, and the duality of man.

The novel is a roman à clef with the characters representing real people, and scenes and plotlines real events. The cast of characters is thought to represent Beat writers that Kerouac surrounded himself with, with Ryder representing poet Gary Snyder who was major influence on Kerouac in the 1950’s. It is apparent that Kerouac wrote what he knew, and he wrote it so well. With biting, free-flowing description, a wide cast of characters, each bizarre and dynamic in their own ways, and an unpredictable, crazy series of events, this novel depicts a man’s search for enlightenment during the Beat era, and what that entailed is nothing short of a thrill. Entertaining, evocative, intellectual, and fun. This was my first hand at Kerouac, but certainly not my last.

To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

This 1937 fourth novel by American author Ernest Hemingway is the harrowing, adventurous tale of Harry Morgan, a sea captain who’s hit hard times. After getting cheated during a fishing expedition, Morgan is broke, and in order to support his family, he gets involved in smuggling illegal contraband from Cuba to the Key West, mainly refugees, alcohol, and guns. Pretty soon, he finds himself in a world of trouble, roped into a world of crime and unable to get out. It is a painfully realistic portrait of the clash between right and wrong, and the competing conceptions of honesty, honor, and dignity.

The writing, terse and laconic per Hemingway’s signature style, flows from one page to the next, painting the setting, characters, and conflicts in a muted but still encapsulating range of color. Issues of the depression-era setting such as racism, classism, dissolution, poverty, and depravity are graphically illustrated, from racial slurs to grandiloquence, which further illuminate the rift between the “haves” and the “have nots.” But more so than the writing itself, the story is what keeps the pages turning: surprising series of events, unrelenting suspense and fear, and a whole lot of violence. Action is Hemingway’s forte, and this novel stands to prove that. I read this one cover to cover which doesn’t happen often.

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

This 2018 novel is the third and final volume of autobiographical series The Outline Trilogy by English writer Rachel Cusk. Like the previous volumes, this chapter-less novel follows an unnamed narrator as she encounters various individuals, recounting conversations and experiences. This time, on retreat for a writer’s conference, her encounters include a tall airplane passenger with a complicated family, a middle-aged female writer who was trapped in an Italian mansion, an impressionistic journalist, and young tour guide who happens to be a mathematical genius. Written in first person, what unfolds is a brutally honest, at times hilarious, at times tragic, always insightful outlined portrait of a woman going about her life as well as a humble, empathetic depiction of the human condition.

In my opinion, Cusk is one of the greatest contemporary writers today. Like Knausgaard, she has an unbelievable, uncanny knack for capturing in beautifully exhaustive detail the souls of human beings, the minute parts of their personalities, their logic and reasoning, their existences, and then evaluating and analyzing said psychological portraits with intelligence and insight so deeply that they take on a whole new meaning. She is able to impart into the reader an intimacy that is more than real, constructing a bridge between emotion and contemplation, while simultaneously making you laugh, wince, sob, and smile in its absorption. And even more, there is a grace, a fluidity, an elegance to her prose, which has a magical, mesmerizing effect. Her writing is addictive. This was an incredible finale to her trilogy, and I cannot wait to read more of her work.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

This 1927 third novel by English writer Virginia Woolf is the tale of the Ramsay family who, with some family friends, are staying at their vacation home in the Isle of Skye in Scotland, with whom they plan a trip to visit a local lighthouse. The book is split into three sections, with the subsequent sections taking place years later. The novel, in the tradition of early modernists, is written with emphasis on reflection, introspection, and the portrayal of thought rather than action, plot-driven storylines, and dialogue.

Scenes are told through multiple perspectives from different characters, multiple times over, superimposed to form a grand mosaic of the plot and setting. These transitions between perspectives occur frequently (sometimes within a single sentence), ambiguously, and seamlessly, creating a flow that drifts from the mind of one character to the next, like a singular stream of multiple consciousness’s. And it meanders, interweaving the physical world and the inner workings of the mind. Woolf captures the thought process in unthinkable detail, how the mind moves from one thought to the next, sometimes repetitive, sometimes intrusive, sometimes nonsensical; and paints philosophical introspection through beautiful and evocative prose. Initially a challenge to get used to, I soon found myself poring over the pages, utterly engrossed, totally hypnotized. It is a literary feat, an absolute masterpiece of creativity, vision, and writing.

In Hazard by Richard Hughes

This 1938 novel by British writer Richard Hughes follows a crew of sailors aboard the merchant ship Archimedes on its way to the Far East having departed from Norfolk, VA in the year 1929. While passing around Cuba to enter the Panama Canal, a massive super-hurricane hits, sending the crew and ship into pandemonium, both struggling to survive. The story is based on the real events of 1932 Cuba Hurricane, one of deadliest cyclones in history, and the S.S. Phemius that was caught in the storm for four days before being rescued.

The chapters correspond to specific days, and they are split into tinier sections, like diary entries. Altogether they work to form an elaborate timeline of events. In each entry, the details of those events increase as the story unfolds, as if the more severe the storm grows, the more vivid the story becomes. And Hughes’s writing is fantastic; he carves an incredibly lucid scene, with all its fast-paced action, whirlwinds of chaos, and treacherous peril, without overloading the reader with excessive nautical jargon. It’s an exciting, entertaining, Verne and Melville-esque tale of adventure and survival, complete with the based-on-true-events side to sate the heart of any history buff.

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

This 1962 third novel by American author Kurt Vonnegut is the collection of memoirs by Howard J. Campbell Jr. The setting takes place a little over a decade after WWII and Campbell, charged with war crimes, sits in a jail cell in an Isreali prison awaiting his trial. It is from this cell that he recounts his life. Told in a frame narrative (with Vonnegut himself playing the editor), Campbell describes his life as a young playwright living in Germany, who becomes an American undercover agent, and then an unsuspecting Nazi propagandist during WWII. He details various odd encounters, conversations, bizarre happenings, along with the many backstories of past acquaintances, friends, even the reunion with his long, lost wife who was presumed to be dead. With each anecdote recounted, Campbell seems to blur the line between good and bad, evil and moral, painting a portrait of ambivalence, an absurd kind of empathy that ultimately ends in a surprising finale.

Some might recognize the name Howard J. Campbell as he is a character in Vonnegut’s most popular work, Slaughterhouse-Five, and this is essentially the backstory for the character, though Mother Night was published 7 years before. Like Slaughterhouse, the narrative of this novel is nonlinear; it is also an exemplum of the literary form meta-fiction, wherein the writer of the story is a character in the story and aware that he is a character in the story that he is narrating. Also, Vonnegut being the editor in the story further exemplifies the form, as the author of the story that the character is the writer of and is narrating is also a character in the story that his character is the author of and is narrating (if that makes any sense). And those meta conundrums litter the pages, as Vonnegut is wont to do. In his trademark, unique blend of historical commentary and black comedy satire, Vonnegut writes a tale that not only dwells upon his own experiences, constructing a world tinged with authenticity but captivates the reader with his straightforward, accessible, engaging prose, all the while beautifully espousing the notion that some tales require a certain form of telling.

Upstream by Mary Oliver

This 2016 book by American poet Mary Oliver is a collection of autobiographical essays. The pillars of the collection, what constitute “the gates through which [she] vanished from a difficult place,” are: nature and literature. In brilliant detail, Oliver recounts the role that the two have played throughout her life, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Not only does she describe her escapes into nature, painting in vivid imagery plant and animal life alike, but she also details the roles that great writers have had on her own life. Greats include Whitman, Emerson, Poe, and many others. Upstream is at once an expressive memoir cataloguing the beauty and wonder of life; and an in-depth analysis of some of the greatest figures in literature with brilliantly crafted biographies and a fulsome tribute to their work.

I’ve had this one on my shelf for a long time; bought it when it came out in paperback. Intermittently, I would take it with me when I set off into the nearby forest. And as I hiked the winding trails going deeper and deeper into the dense woods, I would read various essays, random ones, simply for the depictions of nature. What Oliver describes in beautiful detail is what I experienced while surrounded by it. Her essays are moving, exquisite, evocative, and a reminder of what is out there, the nature that extends far beyond our reach and the role that it plays in our lives. Her writing is truly incredible; after all she is a renown poet, and true artist of words, and when a poet writes in prose, it is bound to be fantastic.

So Much Longing in So Little Space by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This 2017 novel by Norwegian author (and of my all-time faves) Karl Ove Knausgaard is the at once a memoir and in-depth look into the life and works of one of Norway’s most celebrated artists, Edvard Munch. With elaborate biographically details imbued throughout, Knausgaard dives deep into the creation and analysis of the Norwegian painter’s extensive oeuvre, expanding on various evocations of the art, effects ranging from deeply philosophical and enlightening to the reflections on mental health and what was presumably a difficult life that Munch led. In Knausgaard’s signature style, a combination of free-flowing stream-of-consciousness and excruciating attention to detail, the book is a wonderful look into the hidden nuances of art and the fascinating tale of one of Norway’s most prolific figures.

Truthfully, I didn’t know much about art; certainly not much about Norwegian art. All I knew was that Edvard Munch was the artist who painted the iconic picture The Scream. But from page one, I was captivated. Knausgaard paints, no pun intended, not just a beautiful portrait of an artist’s life, capturing the tribulations and heartache he endured during the late 19th, early 20th century, but his long-winded musings, reflections, and personally insight on the works of art, his expounding on the importance and effects such art has and has had on culture, were truly some of the most engrossing passages. I was forced to see art through different lenses, and subsequently revel in the brilliance of a form that I had not so much considered. It comes as no surprise–Knausgaard is known for his beautifully crafted input, as well as his extensive studies in art and art history. That he is an incredibly gifted writer as well simply yields a wonderfully exciting, mesmerizing, and absolutely fascinating critical work on art.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

This 1997 fifth novel by renown American writer Philip Roth is one man’s tale of defeat. Seymore Levov has done everything right in his life; he was the hometown hero, the high school star athlete, the charming, intelligent, good-looking envy of his classmates and their parents, and after school, married a pageant queen, took over the family business and was wildly successful. However, his successes, innumerable achievements, good-intentions, and right decisions couldn’t prevent his own daughter growing up to become a terrorist. Captured in a frame narrative that meanders over the span a lifetime, it is a searing account of one man’s attempt to do everything right and tragically failing in the face of the indiscriminate, brutal force of circumstance, and the consequences that ruin a picture-perfect household.

It is a modern retelling of the Book of Job, set in the politically incendiary latter part of the 20th century. Roth paints a moving portrait of the fall of man, and the desecration of a family, with tiny moments of hope and triumph, and massive ones of heartache and anguish. Carved in his signature exhaustive detail imbued with satire, commentary, and evocation, Roth dives deep into the human condition, obliterating the American definition of success in the face of cultural and political chaos all the while reflecting on the absurdity (and futility) of life, fate, and war. So many more topics are explored too–memory, psychology, agency, and aging, to name a few. It is at once an entertaining, heart-wrenching tragedy and a philosophical excavation. Often considered Roth’s magnum opus, it is easy to see why. This one goes down as one of the best I’ve ever read; an absolute and undeniable masterpiece.

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