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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

December Reads

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

On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg

This 2014 debut novel by American writer Ronna Wineberg is the coming-of-age story of a Russian immigrant growing up in Chicago just after the turn of the 20th century. Lena Czernitski, an inquisitive, talented young girl lives with parents and older brother in a small tenement on Bittersweet Place, her impoverished family having fled Ukraine amid the October Revolution. Her father owns a laundromat, her mother sews clothing, and little Lena attends school where she is relentlessly bullied by schoolmates and teachers alike for being Jewish. Soon tragedy after tragedy befalls young Lena and her family. From assault and death to abandonment and destruction, Lena struggles to navigate her burgeoning adolescence amid unspeakable anguish and confusion, all the while clinging to her passion in life, art. And after she meets a young boy Max, the days seem to grow brighter despite the constant threat of danger that underlies her life. It is a moving tale about self-discovery, young love, and the universal resilience which marks the story of an immigrant trying to make a home in a new and foreign place.

At many times throughout reading this novel, I felt like putting it down, but at such a moment, something would happen, a chapter would end on a cliffhanger, a character would learn a new piece of information, and I just had to keep reading. It is far from a perfect novel, and there are many things that I would have liked to see developed further–historical context, a deeper dive into the ties of family and friendship which bind one another together. While Wineberg’s characterization is impressive, each and every character has their own voice and is well-rounded and flawed, her prose lacked for me–where I wanted more description, I was disappointed; well-crafted lines were rarer than cliches; and for me, it wasn’t as engaging as I had hoped it to be. However, the book is a solid read nonetheless, and I would recommend the book to anyone looking to dive into a searing, sad coming-of-age story, but one for which the tiny moments of triumph and hope lend a certain humanity and optimism.

A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf by John Muir

This 1914 book by American environmentalist John Muir is the true-life account of one of the most incredible journeys in American history. Compiled from his journey entries, the book tracks the journey of John Muir who, at 29 years old, sets off from Indianapolis on the first of September 1867 to walk southward to the Floridian gulf coast. Keeping to the off-beaten tracks through dense forests and mountainsides, across pastures and streams and valleys, Muir scrutinizes and studies the various plants that pique his interest, all the while basking in the beauty of nature. Charting tens of miles per day, he sought refuge in caverns and taverns and even go knocking on doors hoping that the inhabitants might take in a desperate lodger. While in Savannah Georgia, in an effort to pinch his last few pennies, Muir resorts to building a fort out of twigs and branches in the back bushes of a cemetery, staving off snakes and other creatures in the middle of the night. In Florida, Muir treks through alligator-infested marshes, admiring palm trees and coppiced sedges, and at one-point catches both malaria and typhoid which nearly kills him. After three months of recovery, he makes his way to Cuba aboard a schooner, insisting on staying on deck through an incredible storm which nearly washing him out to sea. And all the while throughout his sojourns, Muir muses about the importance of nature and the beauty found just outside one’s door.

Not since I first read J.A. Baker’s fantastic book The Peregrine back in June of last year have I come across such exquisite descriptions of nature. Muir manages to capture in visceral vibrance just the beauty, the power, and the magic that reside in the great vegetation the enshrouds the world in its variegated and lush expanse. And his ecological eye misses nothing–from the tiniest flower, moss, of leaf, to the roaring rapids, steep mountainsides, and turbulent ocean waves. He writes with an unwavering passion which seeps from his terse economy of words, in the pauses where he removes the first-person ‘I’ as if to emphasize the nature as the subject, he himself just a mere observer, a meager recipient of all its glory. Not a single word appears extraneous or misplaced, and each section, each new turn down another trail, flows into another, interspersed with his intelligent insights spanning from the botany to science to philosophy and religion along with pages filled with photos and sketches of landscapes and plants. His wonderful journey, at times marked by sudden and treacherous events yet still teeming with the triumph, awe, and exultation, Muir projects for the reader, inviting them to join him in his travels, to feel what he feels and experience his own experiences. This book was truly like a window opened to another world, but one not so unfamiliar, one that exists already and always has. Muir reminds of the importance of nature and the power in the connection between it and humans. I read this one over the course of two days, unable to stray far from it, the strength of its inspiring grasp all but impossible to spurn.

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

This 1966 debut novel by American writer Don Carpenter is probably the toughest, roughest, and hardened coming-of-age story I’ve ever read. Set at the turn of the 1930’s, the novel follows Jack Levitt, a teenage orphan who, having run away from the reform school which housed him, now spends his days on the dirty streets of Portland, Oregon and his nights in brothels and fleabag motels. A leader of the local gang of miscreants, he frequents seedy bars and poolrooms, always on the lookout for a possible grift to feed both his physical and sexual appetite. Then enters Billy Lancing, an adolescent black runaway whose pool-playing talents are uncontested. The two strike a friendship, but soon the unrelenting fate of circumstance drives them apart. Jack is sent back to reform school, emerges years later abused and reclusive, and after seizing his first momentary glimpse of freedom, finds himself taken once again by the strong arms of the law and confined in a jail cell at San Quentin, one of the worst prisons in California. But he’s not alone; Billy Lancing is there. Having started a life for himself on the outside, running a lucrative business, a homeowner with a wife and a son, still Billy had been unable to escape the life of pool hustling that marked his adolescence, and it had been a forged cheque that had done him in. Inside the clink, their friendship is ignited again, this time stronger than before, but once Jack is released at age 26, the troubles that he so longs to stave off come creeping back, now in the form of love, marriage, fatherhood, and a future that seems to hold the answers which have so far and so viciously evaded him throughout all his turbulent past.

This one had been on my radar for quite a while; I had seen the NYRB cover years ago, that striking black-and-wide photo framing the fast-moving blur of the classic car before the looming silhouette of trees at the side of the road, the light gray of the sky beyond–it would always catch my eye and pique my interest. I always thought it was so cool, so tough. And with descriptions like Jonathan Lethem’s “might be a candidate for one of the best prison novels in American literature,” it was inevitable that I would pick it up. It finally happened this month, and wow, this one astounded me. Carpenter’s ability to carve in crucial honesty such unique characters, throwing them through innumerable hardships and exploring all the while the complex, psychological intersection of survival, freedom, and will. And yet, that aspect is not most remarkable in the novel: it is Carpenter’s examination of masculinity, sexuality and love, especially against a backdrop of indescribably brutal conditions–destitution, addiction, violence, danger–that, to me, was the most compelling. It’s a novel that deconstructs societal expectations, social understandings, traditional conventions, and dives deep into the nature of human relationship between those whom life has dealt the worst hands imaginable. There are tiny moments of glory, of beauty, of redemption, lurking quietly in the details of Carpenter’s virtuosic prose–meticulous precision, frugal description, and in-depth portrayals of interior consciousness which leaps between the minds of different characters with elegant terseness. It was a wild ride, at times thrilling and adventurous, at others heartfelt and tragic, but in total truly an incredible novel and a fantastic read.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

This 1908 third novel by English novelist E.M. Forster is a comedic story about love, propriety, and wild misunderstandings. The novel follows Lucy Honeychurch, a young woman confined to the traditions and social customs of the recent Victorian high society yet yearning to escape, to live an adventurous life beyond the bounds of the conversative strictures of her family. It opens in Florence, Italy where Lucy and some extended family are staying in a hotel along with a few other boarders, one of whom is George Emerson, a curious young man, strong in demeanor, mysterious in conviction. After a series of fortuitous events–one of which involves a man who is stabbed and killed in a Florentine plaza–a strange tension begins to creep between Lucy and George, one born of clashing personalities, but which never comes to fruition. That is until they meet again back Windy Corner, Lucy’s hometown in England, where she is engaged to Cecil Vyse, a pretentious young man, and suddenly, reignited is the strange tension of their brief Italian vacation, a past and unfinished infatuation. Amid a large, eccentric cast of characters, all of whom play a specific role in complicating matters, Lucy struggles against the clashing forces of family, tradition, reputation, and rebellion, wonder, and potential love.

The novel is often regarded as one of the most prominent social comedies of the Edwardian era and cited as a critique of English society. And indeed, the conflicts and tribulations which plight Lucy highlight the arbitrary differences between class, society, and traditions which hinder the happenings that arise naturally between two smitten young persons. Ambivalence touches nearly every decision she makes, along with a number of other characters, many of whom hold unwarranted grudges and biases against others based on class and religion which in turn only complicate everything else. And yet, Forster’s keen eye and brilliant insight into the psychology of love provides a deep exploration into the themes and issues inherent in feminist studies as applicable then, a hundred years ago, as they are still today. It is a novel about ambition, emancipation, and love thwarted by the nonsensical strictures of a past age, with a great triumphant ending. It was such a delight to read–hilarious at times, absolutely engaging, especially in the dialogue between characters which accounts for the near majority of the novel, and absolutely beautiful, Forster’s prose is truly magnificent–his descriptions of nature, architecture, art, and so much else kept me enthralled throughout. This was my first Forster read and certainly won’t be my last.

Chasing Homer by László Krasznahorkai

This 2019 novella by Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai is an experimental short thriller about an unnamed man on the run. Split into nineteen short chapters and narrated in the first- and second-person points of view, each section details the interior monologue of a man fleeing from invisible assassins constantly at his heels. Headed southward toward the Croatian Adriatic coast, he runs through forests, into crowds, onto beaches, boarding ferries and departing to again pick up his flight, desperate always to stave off abduction and a certain death and encountering one too many close calls all the while. No details are provided about what events set off the chase, or who the man’s pursuers are, and for what reason they are after him–only that is has been going on “at least for years, months, weeks now” with no end in sight. With every step he takes, the nameless narrator contemplates his next move, plotting strategies and evasive routes, careful always not to let his guard down, even for just a moment. And what ensues is a fantastically thrilling, intellectually engaging rumination on the will of survival, the fear of death, the persistence of determination, and the inevitability of defeat.

After reading Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance last year, Krasznahorkai quickly rose into one of my favorite contemporary authors, and this novel, which I couldn’t help but read it in one sitting, only affirmed and strengthened such a superlative. I knew the style going in–each section consists of few but page-long, meandering run-on sentences, interposing thought and description in elegant lists, coarsely punctuated with commas and em-dashes, simultaneously intriguing and puzzling, demanding attention, follow-through, and intellection in the reader. Lines run just as the narrator does–never ending, because to end is to surrender. But beyond the style, the content fluctuates from exterior detail to the interior contemplation, rumination, speculation, topics leaping from survival to religion, humanity to philosophy; all of it beyond riveting. But beyond the style and the content, this latest novel by Krasznahorkai is a multimedia work–paintings and illustrations by German abstract artist Max Neumann scatter the pages; and beginning each section is QR code which leads to a short soundtrack of rhythmic percussion by Hungarian jazz drummer Szilveszter Miklós, sounds to accompany (and elevate) the text. I had never seen such a novel, and I have to wonder if this one is just a fluke or if, perhaps, I can look forward to finding more forthcoming novels of the same vein–it was astounding, so engaging, truly bewildering to behold. Chasing Homer has only reinspired my love and appreciation for Krasznahorkai’s work, and in the new year, I absolutely intend to read more of his incredible catalog. He’s truly one of most impressive and important contemporary writers of today.

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz

This 1977 second book by American writer Eve Babitz is a collection of ten autobiographical essays detailing the various escapades of a young, beautiful, intelligent, bohemian woman living in the L.A. during the late 60’s, early 70’s. Speeding down the freeways from city to rural landscape, to the hilly vineyards of Bakersfield and country-style dancehalls, back to the high-status dinner parties in artists’ studios and opening-nights at avant-garde night clubs, tequila and cocaine abounding, to the grandiose, luxuriant mansions in the deserts of Palm Springs, to the beaches of Malibu and Emerald Bay–Babitz is not once to stay idle in one place for long. And with a large cast of friends, lovers, and those in between, never is there a dull moment–from the highest of jubilances to the most anxiety-inducing fretful nights where the hangover comes early and a single wrong word uttered is enough to start a fight. Living the fast life has its ups and downs, and in these short portraits of her life, Babitz paints a strikingly poignant picture of life in L.A., basking beautifully in what is most assuredly a cultural zenith in the second half of the 20th century.

I tend to think of Babitz in the same vein as Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, as she wrote primarily in essay form, blending anecdote and insight, cultural references, and, all the while, vividly capturing the essence of a place and time–for Babitz, L.A. in the late 60’s through the 70’s. But if Didion and Sontag stand on opposite ends, Babitz falls somewhere between them. Her prose is more direct and accessible than Sontag’s, yet more grandiloquent and descriptive than Didion’s; there’s more an emphasis on movement, narrative, and dialogue than Sontag’s, though less so than Didion’s; sentences stretch longer than Didion though not as far as Sontag’s; and the ruminative insight which elevates Babitz’s essays come in short bursts, usually towards the end, unlike both Sontag–whose musings last pages long–and Didion’s–whose scatter the pages in subtle but elegant phrases and descriptions. And the tone that permeates Babitz’s writing is conversational–imbued throughout are brief parenthetical uses of “you,” almost as if she is inviting the reader in to hear a story or perhaps a secret. It is this intimacy that, for me, makes her work such a delight to read, of course along with her brilliant insight, uproarious hilarity, acerbic wit, sardonic slants, literary allusions (Woolf, Hawthorne, Proust–to name a few), and her absolute virtuosity in storytelling. Eve Babitz passed away last week, on December 17th, and I feel remiss that I have not read more of her work. I intend to change that in the coming year–she is doubtless one of most interesting, fantastic, and significant writers of the late 20th century.

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Józef Czapski

This 1987 book by Polish artist Józef Czapski is the unbelievable account of a truly remarkable moment in history. During the bleak winter of 1940-1941 in the “cold refectory of an abandoned convent that served as a mess hall” of a Soviet prison camp, Czapski dictated a series of lectures about Marcel Proust and his famous work In Search of Lost Time in the quiet, secret hours of the night, before an eager audience of other prisoners–scholars, professionals, educators in their previous lives. Without access to a library nor scholarly resources of any kind, he spoke from memory, outlining not only his own experiences with the multi-volume novel, his first reading and subsequent re-readings and expounding its literary and artistic significance amid a changing cultural terrain, but diving deep into the work, analyzing its numerous character relations and exploring its countless themes. Captured within the pages of this short book is a brilliant, truly astonishing feat of intelligence and memory, as well as a portrait of an undying hope in the face of the darkest atrocity.

In his introduction, Czapski writes, “This is not a literary essay in the true sense of the word, but rather the recollection of a work to which I was deeply indebted and which I was not sure of seeing again in my life.” And such an exposition underscores the emotion and passion which permeates the text, especially against the contextual circumstances that lie invisible, just beyond the words themselves. Czapski and his scholarly cohorts might be considered revolutionaries–banding together in secret to keep alive the love and hope that their iniquitous imprisonment threatened to destroy, which in turn seems almost an act of protest, as if to live and learn and love the very ideas and works which bind individuals together as a way to rebel against injustice. His knowledge and insight and memory are truly staggering–quoting various lines, detailing biographical information about Proust and his contemporaries, lending glimpses into his creative process and inspiration. This short book–the lectures span 70 pages–teems with the brilliance and remarkability of a scholar, and it was true delight to read. Never have I felt more inspired and pressed to finish Proust’s monumental work.

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