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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

February Reads

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

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

This 1898 novella by American writer Henry James is one of the most famous classic ghost stories. It is the tale of unnamed governess who is tasked with looking after Flora and Miles, two young children, at their uncle’s Bly estate in the English countryside. During her stay, the unnamed narrator begins experiencing strange paranormal activity: she begins seeing a ghostly man and woman, haunting the grounds of the estate; and she learns that they are Mr. Quint and Ms. Jessel, the former an old employee of the children’s uncle, the latter the governess’s predecessor. What unfolds is an eerie, strange tale that confronts not only the familiar expectations of innocent children, but also that of the nature, trust, and sanity.

First published serially in monthly issues of the American magazine Collier’s Weekly, the novella is one of Henry James’s most famous stories. Today it still garners much attention, especially in the academic and literary sphere, as the text–both its content and form–spurs many different interpretations ranging from structuralist, Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, and many more. Structured in a frame narrative–the narrator, as introduced in the prologue, ambiguously disguised through multiple layers of narration–the story unfolds from a series of letters composed by the late governess and written in the first person. Such a perspective inevitably invites notions of unreliability which appear mirrored in James’s prose which is notoriously complex. In the form and in the content, there is a pervading sense disquietude, of a rising anxiety that continues to crescendo until the very last moment. This is a short novel that contains so much, from the form, to the story, to the very words themselves.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

This 1962 fifth novel by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov is at once many stories in one. At its core, Pale Fire is a 999-line autobiographical poem by an old man named John Shade who is at the end of this life. In the poem, Shade details both his love for his wife Sybil, as well as the suicide of their young daughter Hazel. Commissioned to publish and annotate the poem is John Shade’s friend and academic, Charles Kinbote who is both writer and narrator of the foreword and the subsequent commentary which makes up the bulk of the novel. Kinbote details his friendship with John Shade, as well as his rivalry with Sybil, and how he has come to work on the publication of the poem; however, Kinbote also goes a step further in his commentary, claiming that the poem was inspired by the harrowing true story of King Charles the Beloved, the deposed king of Zembla, a distant northern land, who escape imprisonment by the Soviets, went on the run, and avoided assassination by a man named Gradus who in turn accidentally murdered John Shade instead of the former King, who may or may be Charles Kinbote himself. The story of this entire history, Kinbote endeavors to tell in his commentary of the poem.

The novel is an absolute feat of content, form, and imagination. Not only is the whole story–with all its exhaustively detailed layers of history, geography, politics, etc.–the product of one man’s imagination, but the form, or rather forms, in which the story is written–ranging from poetry, to critique, to script, to prose–elevates this one work into a literary realm all its own. And even more, the novel spans so many genres: epic poem, criticism, fantasy, mystery, thriller, comedy, romance, tragedy, and even ghost story. Also, the novel, being itself a work of literary criticism albeit fictional, is imbued with an abundance of allusions to other famous and obscure works of literature. Nabokov, in his unparalleled virtuosity and craft at language, has created one of the most astounding, bewildering, invigorating, and moving novels ever. This is a novel that I will continue to read over and over and over again, just for the sheer scope of its detail. Truly remarkable.

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

This 1826 sixth novel by American author James Fenimore Cooper is the second installment of his Leatherstocking Tales pentalogy. Set in the dense forests of upper state New York during the 18th century French and Indian War, the story revolves around the transport of Alice and Cora Munro to Fort William Henry where their father Lieutenant Colonel Munro is commander. Attempting a shortcut, the caravan, headed by the young major Duncan Heyward, encounters American frontiersman Natty Bumppo, aka Hawk-eye, and his two Native American companions, Chingachgook and his son Uncas, who offer to escort the group safely to their destination. Thus begins a harrowing journey filled with violent ambushes, various close-calls battling the elements, an entire massacre, and numerous abductions which spur dangerous recovery missions.

For the three weeks I spent with this novel, it was never far from my thoughts. Having to closely read it for a class allowed for a more in-depth, expansive, and pleasurable experience. It is one of the most famous classic works of American literature and an exemplum of the historical romance, as it was inspired by true events. The story itself, exhilarating, harrowing, and brutal in so many ways, kept me on the edge of my seat all the way through. Cooper’s sense of scope and detail is astonishing; his attention to detail was beyond meticulous, even excessive at times. But nonetheless, the novel is an accomplishment, an authentic masterpiece of realism, one that brings the reader into the vast forests, the towering mountains, into the warfare and brutality of the elements, and thrusts him into the carnage without relent. While it was a challenge to read and indeed the story itself is challenging, it nevertheless proved to be an absolutely incredible read.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

This 1965 second novel by American author Thomas Pynchon is the story of Oedipa Maas, a young woman living in California who learns, to her surprise, that she has been named by an ex-lover the executor of his massive estate. In undertaking such a role, Maas begins to, inadvertently unearth what seems to be an elaborate conspiratorial conflict between two different mail distribution companies which themselves appear to be shadow organizations. Initially allured by the mystery, Maas soon finds herself entwined in a complex, winding, and completely bizarre investigation that forces her to confront the illusion that seemingly comprises the life she once knew, an endeavor that pushes her to the brink of sanity.

It is a paranoia-fueled fever-dream of strange occurrences, a wacky cast of characters, an abundance of cultural and literary allusions, a mysterious inter-web of conspiracies, and a sardonic portrait of the west coast during the sixties, all thread together in a masterful tale of one woman’s search for the truth. But beyond the plotlines, Pynchon’s prose is truly remarkable; sequences of description that range from beautifully imaginative metaphors to complex scientific jargon. Also, what is truly astounding and doubtless one of the attributes that make this short novel a classic work of postmodern literature, is Pynchon’s employment of intertextuality: there are a number of fictionalized histories, backstories, and even an entire play. It is a novel that deconstructs the concept of truth with such a grand sense of paranoia, it’s comical. This was my third time reading this one, and with each read, it gets better and better; there’s always more to be found. It is a powerhouse and a damn good novel.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

This 1854 book by American scholar and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau is at once a collection of various philosophical essays on topics that range from economy, to reading, sounds, solitude, hierarchy of animals, and the aesthetic connections between nature and humans; as well as an in-depth and personal diary documenting an incredible physical and spiritual journey. At the beginning of summer in 1845, Henry David Thoreau retreated to a small, one-room shack at the edge of Walden Pond, a great lake in the forests of Concord, Massachusetts, and remained there for two years and two months. During his time, Thoreau sought to live simply, to be close to nature and the wilderness, and learn and meditate on the human condition in relation to the great outdoors. His writings during this time became this book, which is often regarded as one of the most important works of American transcendentalism.

It was a read that was difficult at first, somewhat discursive and tedious it seemed, however, once I got used to his writing, it quickly became quite an experience. What Thoreau did–spurning society with all its materiality, consumer culture, and capitalism and retreating to a dilapidated shed to be alone with nature and his own thoughts for two years straight–is an incredible feat, one that was truly inspiring to read. And his documentation of his experience is beyond captivating; he frequently leaps from beautiful descriptions, metaphors of nature, and aesthetic connections to the mind and various natural elements to long, winding philosophical musings, the subjects of which range from economy, to solitude, to the season, and so much more. Thoreau’s prose flows like a river would, and in this fascinating work is a culmination of intellectualism and nature, doubtless the two pillars of transcendentalism.

Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramović

This 2016 memoir by Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović is the story of a life unlike any I’ve ever read. Born in former Yugoslavia in the wake of WWII, she details her depressive childhood, adolescence living under the oppressive rule of her ardently communist mother. From a young age she realized the power of art; and when she discovered the emerging medium of performance, she had found her calling. Her pursuit of performance drove her across Europe, performing in various exhibitions, festivals, in groups and by herself, and she quickly garnered a following within the art world. She details her relationship with Ulay, a German man who became her artistic partner and lover; a man with whom she would go on to create some of the most memorable pieces of performance art. And after their split, Abramović, devastated, would continue to persevere in her unrelenting resilience and ultimately found an art institution and go on to create some of most important and memorable pieces in modern art history.

I struggle to even find the words to describe this book, as it was truly an experience unlike any other. From the very first page, she had her hooks in me, and I read her life as if I was living it too. I turned the pages unwittingly, and when I wasn’t reading, I was only thinking about her, and what was happening, counting the instances until I could open the pages again. Her life–riddled with heartache, pain, and sorrow as well as triumph, beauty, and love–is a story so powerful, so uplifting and inspiring that I was frequently moved to tears as I read. So too is her life amazing with all the little moments of cosmic serendipity, of mere coincidence, of sheer hilarity and strangeness, and above all, moments of perseverance, strength, and determination. The sheer magnitude of Abramović’s artistic vision, her imagination, and ambition is something truly remarkable, completely unique and unparalleled. And painted in absolutely brilliant prose, her life leapt from the pages and seized me with such force that I will surely never forget this read for as long as I live and return to it many times over.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

This 1970 second novel by American writer Joan Didion is a portrait of an actress living in late 1960’s Los Angeles. Captured in a frame narrative, it is the story of Maria Wyeth, a young up-and-coming film star whose prospects in the industry are numerous. Originally from Silver Wells, Nevada, she first moves to New York to become an actress, modeling to support herself, but after the death of her parents, she quits life in the Big Apple, meets an actor named Carter Lang and moves out to LA, soon to be living the dream. However, soon her past comes back to haunt her; she and Carter divorce, she becomes pregnant to which she has abortion, and has to deal with psychological trauma that entails while also trying to maintain her working status and stave off the numerous industry connivers who only aim to exploit her. In the end, Maria descends in a dark and unyielding place, and it is from this place that she tells her story.

It is a brilliant snapshot of a fascinating person in a fascinating time, and Didion, with her uncanny craft at storytelling, is able to portray and illuminate at once the wonder of showbiz and the horrors that follow fame. For me, however, it was Didion’s prose that truly enthralled me; she combines the terseness reminiscent of Hemingway or McCarthy with the verbal precision and artistry of a poet. The novel, barely reaching over two-hundred pages, is comprised of 84 chapters, each a short, episodic vignette that brilliantly captures the time, place, and events that comprise the larger tapestry of the story. And it is through these intimate windows that the complexity, pain, and emotion of a mysterious and doubtless intelligent woman is revealed to the reader. This was a fantastically beguiling read, one marked with unforeseen darkness despite the bright lights of Hollywood. I cannot wait to read more of her work.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

This 1980 debut novel by American author Marilynne Robinson is the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, and the unconventional household in which they spent the most formative years of their lives. After their father abandoned them and their mother committed suicide, the young girls fell into the hands of many relatives before finally their Aunt Sylvie, their mother’s young sister, arrives and takes guardianship. Sylvie is a mysterious, transient woman whom Ruth and Lucille, doubtless in want and need of parental affection, soon latch onto. However, as the girls get older, the initial ties that once linked them to Sylvie–ties forged in the wake of tragedy and fear–begin to weaken. While Ruth resolutely stands by Sylvie’s side, Lucille begins to stray, and the divide that ensues changes their lives forever.

The novel won the PEN/Hemingway award in 1982 for best first novel and was also a finalist for the Pulitzer. The Guardian Unlimited described the novel as a “haunting, poetic story, drowned in water and light, about three generations of women,” which I think is a more than apt description. It is a story about family with an intimacy so incredibly portrayed it seems more than real. It is heartbreaking and lovely, harrowing and beautiful. Not only is Robinson’s sense of character and roundedness remarkably deep, but her prose is truly poetic. A major aspect of the novel is the setting, and her descriptions of nature, of the various elements that mark her tiny created world, with all their unique detail and complexity, Robinson paints in the most vivid of depictions with grandiloquent, fluid, and even rhythmic diction and syntax. The novel is like a painting, one that would doubtless move and stir emotion in an unforeseeable ways. This novel pulled me in and churned me out, and all the while I was captivated. I cannot wait to read more of her work.

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