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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

February Reads

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

Plum Bun by Jessie Redmond Fauset

This 1928 novel, Faucet’s second and most popular, tells the tale of Angela Murray, a young African American girl who can pass as white, as she navigates adolescence and young adulthood in 1920’s Philadelphia and New York City. Witnessing first-hand the racism faced by members of her family, as well as experiencing the advantages of appearing white, Angela Murray learns the ins and outs of society, ranging from the poverty to the upper class. After she meets and falls in love with a rich man in New York City, she struggles with abandoning her morals in exchange for wealth and security.

Plum Bun is widely regarded as a seminal work of the Harlem Renaissance. Fauset’s contemporaries included Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, who doubtless influenced the young writer. In 408 pages, Fauset manages to capture the unique, eye-opening, and at times perilous tenor of life during the ‘20’s, life for both African Americans and whites. The story, a perfect example of a bildungsroman, is thought to be directly inspired by Fauset’s own life. Despite having to read the book for a class, I was still totally captured–the impressive cast of characters all of whom are their own distinct personalities, the vivid depictions of urban life during the Harlem Renaissance, and the trials and tribulations of the protagonist as she grapples with love, wealth, family, and race. It was absolute masterpiece.

Nothing but the Night by John Williams

This 1948 debut novel details of the mindless peregrinations of 24-year-old Arthur Baxley. From waking up in a messy room from a horrific nightmare to brunch with a needy friend, then dinner with an estranged father, to a night on the town which ends in a beautifully romantic and violent scene, this novel pushes and pulls the reader through a maze of wild happenings.

Most striking about the novel, and what I find unbelievably impressive for a debut novel (Williams was 26 when it was it was published), is Williams’s ability to enmesh dream sequences into depictions of reality. In a way it reminded me of Anna Kavan’s Sleep Has His House; the lines of reality are blurred, swirled into undefinable descriptions of dreams, fantasies, and flashbacks. And with each delineation, a puzzle piece of the picture is added, slowly forming in detail a mosaic of a troubled, young man.

A Heart So White by Javier Marías

This 1995 novel chronicles the narrator Juan, a recently married translator living in Madrid, as he slowly unearths his father Ranz’s past relationships as well as adjusts to married life with Luisa, who is also a translator. Under these two central plotlines are a litany of secondary stories from a large cast of characters, familial and non, that explore themes of love, loneliness, and the philosophy of language.

This book is truly one of the greatest books I’ve ever picked up. Firstly, it is written in the narrator’s first-person point of view in a varied stream of consciousness that wavers between thought and dialogue exploring topics that range from macabre to serious to comedic to introspective. It is a style reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard and Henry Miller, yet still completely unique. There is genius in this novel, a certain prescience that eerily comments on the modern cultural tumult. And there is deepness, an evocation that hides within the relationships between truth and translation, love and marriage, family and friend. What Marías has accomplished in A Heart So White is truly an achievement no short of brilliant.

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

This 1933 novel and third by John Steinbeck is the tale of Joseph Wayne, a determined man who ventures out to California to build a new home in the wake of his father’s death, later bringing out his brothers who move to the homestead with their families. Each of the four men is very different from the other and as time goes by, various difficulties arise. As Steinbeck is wont to do, the story is tinged with both biblical and pagan elements, and of course, nature. Despite its short length, To a God Unknown reportedly took Steinbeck the longest time to write, over a span of five years.

Steinbeck’s inexplicable ability to create characters as real as life, shower them with trials and tribulations, and colorfully paint the emotions that bind one another in a web of complication is a feat that no other author has achieved so masterfully. To mirror life with all its complexities and wonders and then to coat such a portrait in gold is but a simple trademark of his writing. Each and every time I read a work of his, I fall headfirst into the world he has so vividly constructed only to fall in love, empathize, and feel with his characters on such a visceral level. And every time, it is wonderfully breathtaking. In my opinion, Steinbeck stands one of the greatest American authors of all time.

The Fall by Albert Camus

This 1956 final novel by the French absurdist philosopher Albert Camus is one long diatribe by a lawyer named Jean-Baptiste Clamence given to another patron at an Amsterdam bar ironically called “Mexico City” in which the story takes place. Clamence’s near 200-page drunken speech describes his life–his work, his love life, his motivations and ambitions, his regrets, his ideas, his dreams, and so much more.

Holy hell, I enjoyed this one. Not only is the premise just so simplistically genius (a premise that hit perhaps a bit too close to home) but the story of Jean-Baptiste Clamence begs literally innumerable questions that scratch, penetrate, and dismantle a litany of philosophical topics, not the least of which include sincerity, honesty, duplicity, hedonism, altruism, love, sex, religion, truth, freedom, slavery, guilt and descent into madness. Moreover, the greatest question I couldn’t help to keep asking was: to what degree is Clamence’s story true? Is he genuine? He has no reason not to be, right?

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

This 1968 second novel by Cormac McCarthy follows brother and sister, Culla and Rinthy Holmes. After Culla discards their incestuous infant and it falls into the hands of a tinker (yes, you read that right), Rinthy sets off in search of the lost child while Culla, in search of work becomes entangled in a string of murders. The two storylines begin as one, then fan out, veering down very different tracks, zigzagging across a wide cast of wild characters, until ultimately meeting again in a disturbing and deadly denouement.

Again, and as always, McCarthy has exceeded every and any expectation I had going into this one. From the very first line, McCarthy seizes the reader, sinks his prosaic hooks in, and injects scenes more vivid and yet simultaneously obscure than can be possibly crafted by any writer. I’ve said it before; what McCarthy does with words is truly unfound in literature, and that the content of his stories exude the bleak iniquity of humanity in its totality is but an added bonus. This one was absolutely magnificent.

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