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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

August Reads

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

The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård

This 2013 debut novel by Norwegian poet and author Linda Boström Knausgård is a modern retelling of the myth of Athena. Told from the perspective of twelve-year-old Anna, a girl borne from the head of her father, the novel details her subsequent experience begin taken in by a pious Swedish family: parents Sven and Birgitta, and their two young boys, Ulf and Urban. Initially perplexed, young Anna slowly begins to assimilate, getting along with her new brothers, learning to ski, to cook, to write, to sing, and participating in their Pentecostal church, even taking the spotlight as a glossolalist. Though lurking beneath the amiable façade, the trauma of her origins slowly begins to emerge, eventually overtaking the young girl and soon she is institutionalized. What unfolds is a heartbreakingly tragic portrait of mental health, how inner demons sculpt and shape the most innocent, and how the longing for closure and the subsequent denial of such is enough to drive a person to madness.

I was introduced to Knausgård through her former marriage to prominent writer and personal favorite Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the famous My Struggle series. And while I was familiar with her work as a poet and filmmaker, I was unaware of her virtuosic talent for prose. The Helios Disaster is an intimate, beautiful, and bewildering portrait of mental illness, doubtlessly inspired by her own experiences with mental institutions. She writes with a terse yet meticulous attention to detail, diving deep into effecting metaphors that paint experience with a moving, almost magical light. Her work draws to mind Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, as well as the work of Anna Kavan–her descriptions, details, both inner and outer perspectives, musings, and dialogue, carry with them the ambiguity, fear, and breadth of the aforementioned, all which coalesce into a style all her own, and wildly different from her ex-husband. This was a brilliant piece of fiction, or rather I should say auto-fiction disguised as fiction and mythological retelling. There is a pervading sense of the disquiet, the too-close, and the grave which seeps from the pages in torrents which engulf the reader with a deluge of anxiety and intimacy. Described as an “intriguing, lyrical novel [and] powerful portrait of mental illness” this was a novel that I was pleasantly and provocatively taken by, and will certainly not be the last of hers that I read.

Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster

This 2007 fifteenth novel by American postmodernist writer Paul Auster is a Twilight-Zone, fever dream of grand proportions and which takes place entirely in a white-painted, concrete-walled cell in which our protagonist is confined. Mr. Blank, a middle-aged man, wakes up to find himself imprisoned, with no memory of how he came to be. In his room are only a few objects but which include various manuscripts on a desk, black-and-white photographs of a number of unknown people, and a typewriter. Various individuals visit Mr. Blank–orderlies, an ex-policeman, a lawyer, an author, to name to a few–and with each encounter and conversation, Blank begins to formulate the story that has brought him here. However, with each clue he attains, especially those found in the enigmatic manuscripts left for him, he takes another step down into a hole of mystery, one in which the ghosts of his past and the fears of the unknown coalesce into a depraved mess of questions.

It is an in-depth exploration of the ephemerality of memory, relationships, consequences, and time, as well as an entertaining, paranoia-inducing tale alluding to a grand conspiracy that interweaves criminal indifference, sexual molestation, fraud, negligence, defamation of character, and even murder. And yet woven into the threads that comprise such a tapestry is the signature intertextuality that elevates Auster into the echelons as one of the greatest contemporary postmodernists. The manuscripts left for Mr. Blank convey another story, one in which Mr. Blank is to play a key role in developing, and as he embarks on such a task, the words seep from the pages to paint the story that comes to be his own fate. The ways in which narrative plays with narrative, plot plays with style, meta-analysis plays with meta-analysis, is truly a feat of artistic ingenuity, a dynamic that not only entertains and enthralls but demands the readers’ attention, forcing them on the end of their chair. This was truly one of the strangest, most unpredictable short novels I’ve read recently, one which kept me guessing, always thwarting success, and one which has introduced me to an absolutely incredible and gifted contemporary author. I cannot wait to dive into more work from his illustrious oeuvre.

Friends and Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford

This 2021 debut novel by Australian-Indian author Kavita Bedford is a vivid encapsulation of the limitless ways in which grief affects those whom we love the most. Set in the suburban outskirts of modern-day Sydney, Australia, and told from the perspective of an unnamed young woman of both Australian and Indian descent, it follows her life with her three friends and housemates–Niki, Bowerbird, and Sami–as they traverse work, romance, and loss, searching for meaning and hope amid the uncertainty and confusion that is millennial life. The unnamed protagonist has just lost her father, and in short, vignette chapters which fluctuate from past to present and progress forward, she details all from the banal and quotidian–new assignments as a freelance journalist, quarreling with her housemates about chores–to the more significant–grappling with the painful memories, ruminating on her cultural origins, and growing to understand the life in which she lives, her place in the world, and what it means to be discover meaning and fulfillment in a time that spurns any sort of answer.

It is a novel that directly reflects, eerily, poignantly, and hopefully, the aspects of modern life that I being a millennial am all too familiar with, and yet within such a familiar reflection are the questions, the uncertainty, the hardships, the pain, and also the prospects beautifully explored with unwavering insight. It is a novel about the meaning of friendship, the inextricable ties that bound one another together; about family, the intimacy and love that only parents can provide; about land, the contradictorily arbitrary and inherent, connection one has with their surroundings, their city, their country–all painted in a terse, illuminating prose that calls to mind the work of Hanya Yanagihara and Zadie Smith. And in fact, I discovered this novel in Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, VA, with a recommendation sticker on the cover by an employee named Grace who described the novel to me as a shorter, more intimate, Australian version of A Little Life. And indeed, reading this one, I easily saw the comparison. It was a moving, entertaining, and profound novel imbued with countless beautifully crafted sentences, provocative statements that interrupted my moving eyes, and prompted a head nod or two of contemplation and regard. Bedford is an act to follow, and I cannot wait to read more of her work in the future.

Light Years by James Salter

This 1975 fourth novel by American writer James Salter is a tale of a seemingly perfect and happy marriage, but looks can be deceiving. It is the 1950’s and husband Viri and wife Nedra live in the suburban surrounding of New York City with their young daughters, Franca and Danny, and their dog Hadji. Viri is a young and successful architect whose friends include everyone from the elite of the arts community–the boisterous, flamboyant, strange–to his quirky tailor; Nedra is a housewife, ambitious but lonesome, opinionated and outspoken, with a penchant for the luxurious. They exist in the upper echelons of life, affluent and opulent, and yet, as the story unfolds, the cracks that reside invisibly in the quiet façade of their lives slowly begin to widen, threatening to disrupt and upend their happy public veneer. Affairs abound, from sexual to romantic, to financial, to downright devious, and as silent tensions rise and the roaring waves pull in closer and closer, the so-thought “perfect family” unravels into a frightening and painful portrait of a mid-20th century modern life.

Not only was this novel a poignant picture of what happens when an insatiable desire for more–more extravagance, luxury, attention, traveling, wealth, experiences, etc.–clashes with the material ends of circumstance and reality, but explores the ways in which nothing is as it seems, especially in marriage. However, the plot of the novel, its content, is not what enthralled me most, though in itself a feat of authorial craftsmanship. No, it was the writing itself (as it always is). From the first lines of the novel – “We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked with the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless.” – I was hooked. Salter’s prose is precise, descriptive, tersely brilliant, reminiscent of McCarthy’s work. And such a tone–one of objectivity, indifference, disinterest–is carried through to the end, a certain transparent-eyeball narrator whose attention never falters. This was my first introduction with Salter, and certainly not my last.

Not my most accomplished reading month, partly due to the fact that I began Larry McMurtry's Moving On, and upon reaching page 508 out of 1008, I decided to put it down. Perhaps I'll pick it up again in the future, but for now, I couldn't keep it up.

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