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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

December Reads

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

Coventry by Rachel Cusk

This 2019 collection of essays by English writer, and one my favorites, Rachel Cusk is collage of tiny windows through which a reader is able to peer into one of the most brilliant minds and interesting lives in contemporary literature. Each essay is an introspective and personal examination. Split into three sections, there are seventeen essays in total, the topics of which range from: driving, silence, rudeness, the definition of a home, children and adolescents, and divorce; to art, science, beauty, meaning, literary studies, art studies, and criticism. And in each essay Cusk’s signature voice expounds what has come to trademark the English writer– immense cunning, wit, and style.

I cannot get enough of Cusk’s work; this was fourth book of hers that I read this year alone. That it was a collection of her essays was even more enthralling, as there was less attention paid the scrutiny of people, the lives and psychology of an specific individuals as the case in her Outline Trilogy, more an introspective and in-depth examination in ideas on various subjects. This collection of essays was purely intellectual, and yet as captivating a read as anything else. Her prose is fluid, eloquent; her metaphors and analogies, intricate and imaginative; her mind brilliant as always. Coventry is truly required reading for anyone interested in ideas that shatter the norm and which force a new perspective of the world.

The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop

This 1972 debut novel by French writer Gabrielle Wittkop is a transgressive erotic drama. Written in the first person through a series of journal entries, the novel is a catalogue of thoughts, musings, actions, and descriptive urges of a necrophiliac, a man named Lucien living in Paris in modern time. By day, he is an antiquarian, standing forlorn behind the counter at an antiques shop; by night, he stalks the nearby cemetery, searching for the freshly buried, to exhume and keep for his own deviant purposes. His deathly desires take Lucien from the rivers and subterranean catacombs of Paris to the back alleys and bays of Naples, all the while walking along the razor’s edge between the world of the living and the realm of the dead.

Over the decades, it has become something of a cult novel; this short novel, not even a hundred pages, was only recently translated into English and published in the U.S., even nearly forty years after its debut. The reason for its varied reception lies entirely in the novel’s character study and prose. Because of the lack of narrative and the composition of fragmented diary entries, the descriptions of the actions as well as the thoughts of the protagonists inspire a reading experience unlike any other. Wittkop’s imagination borders on that of Bataille, her prosaic craft that of Goethe. I read this short novel cover to cover in the span of only a few hours; it was a captivating, gross, and widely entertaining novel that left me thinking about the intersection of life, death, and sex.

Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This 2015 collection of essays by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is the second installment in his autobiographical seasonal quartet addressed to his unborn daughter. The collection is split into three sections–December, January, and February–each containing twenty essays that range from one page to three pages long. And like the first installment, the topics of the essays range widely: from the physical universe–the moon, water, snow, bonfires and atoms, to objects such as chairs and Q-tips; to animals such as owls, fish, otters, and crows; to the intangible–conversations, winter sounds, mess, the social realm, the feeling of life, and sex; to Knausgaard’s various acquaintances whose enigmatic identities he limits to just their first names: Georg, Björn, Thomas, and J. And in each essay, Knausgaard digs deep into his own experience and perception, musing on the details that many would overlook in order to paint the topic in a new light, a new way that just captivates the reader.

As I’ve written about so often before, Knausgaard is one of my favorite writers, and his virtuosity shines forth in all its unfathomable glory once again in this second installment of his Seasons Quartet. His ability to take an object–something as innocuous as a toothbrush–and completely strip away all understanding of, deconstruct the definition of the object, and rebuild it in a new and unsuspecting way is truly something remarkable. Knausgaard’s eye for the mundane, the banal, the world in its unassuming detail entails a reader experience unlike any other. His prose is powerful; terse at times, grandiloquent at others, and all the while articulate and excruciatingly detailed. In this collection, Knausgaard writes elaborately about his family, his childhood and that of his children, which creates an intimacy seldom found in contemporary literature today.

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq

This 2019 eighth novel by French writer Michel Houellebecq is the sad story of Florent-Claude Labrouste, a middle-aged agriculturalist who, discontented with his current situation in life, attempts to escape it by voluntarily going missing. Escaping to the French countryside, supplied with antidepressants to increase his serotonin, Labrouste begins to see how the corporate world of agriculture has impacted farmers and with growing unease, he finds himself entwined in an insurgent band of protestors while all the while he battles the growing pains of his former relationships upon which he incessantly dwells. As the story unfolds and Labrouste confronts his deteriorating mental health and growing obsession, he slowly discovers that it is not the future that kills you, but the past.

Like Houellebecq’s other novels, Serotonin received mixed reviews upon publication, many critics citing the controversial evocations of the author’s prose. However, like his many other novels, four of which I’ve read this year, this novel was nothing short of entertaining, engaging, thought-provoking, and at times hilarious. The novel is structured nonlinearly, in a multitude of frame narratives, each entangling with the others and forming a lucid and painful portrait of the postmodern man, one riddled with anxiety, insecurity, and depression. Beyond the portraiture is a commentary on French consumerism, agriculture, and the devastating effects of corporate-led capitalism. Houellebecq in his trademark transparency, unapologetic crudeness, limitless imagination, and impressive understanding of the human condition, has once again written a book painfully poignant and absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t put this one down.

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

This 2005 debut novel by English writer Tom McCarthy is the story of an unnamed narrator living in modern London who after recovering from a mysterious, unknown injury that left him in a coma for months, suddenly receives eight and a half million pounds in an out-of-court settlement; and he has no clue what to do with it. He eventually embarks on recreating a vivid memory that he has, one of the few prior to his accident; it a vast tenement complex with intricate design, cracks, dust, along with specific inhabitants for whom he hires actions to play. The project catalysts a compulsion to recreate, to reenact what he believed to be lost memories that soon spiral into new fantasies. Our protagonist seeks to the blur the line between creation and re-creation, fantasy and actuality, in a quest that ultimately leads him down a dangerous road paved with obsession, greed, and crime.

The book won McCarthy the 2007 Believer Book Award and was met with mixed reviews. And while I can see how the book was deserving of such praise, for me personally, the novel was quite underwhelming. The initial premise is enticing, captivating; however, its execution fell far below my expectation, and a lot of that had to do with the writing itself. The prose was disengaging, the characters unlikeable, not relatable, and often times, simply strange; the plot meandered in ways that seemed pointless, and perhaps that was the point. The book is a commentary on futility, tilting a gesture towards absurdism and existentialism, while also playing with post-structuralist analysis of definition, meaning, and even déjà vu. And still, with those aspects–things that would normally captivate me and keep enthralled–the novel was not the thrilling experience that I had hoped it would be. Perhaps I’ll give it another chance somewhere down the road. Disappointing.

Amongst Women by John McGahern

This 1990 fifth novel by Irish author John McGahern is the sad story of the Moran family. Michael Moran, an embittered, conservative old man wracked by the brutalities of the war, heads the family. His three daughters–Maggie, Shelia, and Mona–seek their own individuals lives, to make something of themselves, but are increasingly thwarted by their overbearing father’s indomitable will; his two sons–Luke and Michael–equally bear the burden of their father’s malevolence; and his new wife, Rose, whose marriage to Moran is detailed in a series of flashbacks, struggles with a complicated and heart-wrenching ambivalence: to endure out of familial love or stray out of love for herself. Set in the northwestern coastal Ireland, it is a story of a faith and suspicion, love and fear; of the competing conceptions of morality which twist and turn the tethers that bind family together.

The novel was shortlisted for the 1990 Booker Prize, won The Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award in 1991, and is also considered McGahern’s greatest work. Captured in nearly two hundred pages, devoid of chapters, is a timeless, complicated, and absolutely moving story; a generational portrait containing multiple, distinct lives detailed in such an intimacy that as I read, I found myself falling deeper and deeper into the world that McGahern constructed. In lyrical, beautiful, fluid prose, with clarity, insight, and scope, McGahern has painted created a masterpiece of realism that rivals the works of Hamsun, Maugham, and Steinbeck; and yet somehow he stands alone, incomparable. This is a novel that captured and moved me from the very beginning to the very end.

Why Poetry Matters by Jay Parini

This 2008 book by American writer, academic, and literary critic Jay Parini is both a defense of poetry and an in-depth look into widely spanning significance of poetry throughout history into the present-day. Parini focuses on various aspects of poetry: from its different parts–forms and structures, rhyme scheme, metaphor, poetic devices, etc.; to its various uses–political, cultural uses, and its artistic value; to the various kinds of poetry–how different genres and styles have emerged along with themes, symbols, and motifs; to the insightful ideas, imagination, creativity, and experience to be found in the reading of poetry.

This fantastic short book is at once a history of poetry, a history of criticism, a history of philosophy, and a history of linguistics condensed into a book that barely spans two hundred pages. It is a wonderfully compiled look at poetry as a form of art, communication, literature, and cultural device. Parini’s style of writing is accessible, fascinating, and the scope of his studies appears limitless. Not only does he make one of the strongest, deepest, and most compelling arguments for the importance of poetry, he makes it with a wonderful survey of some of the most important works in history, drawing on some of the most important writers in history. My professor of my criticism course had recommended this one to me, and it did not disappoint. It was brilliant.

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