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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

January Reads

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

Outline by Rachel Cusk

This 2014 novel by English writer Rachel Cusk is the first novel in the series The Outline Trilogy followed by Transit and Kudos. A semi-autobiographical roman-a-clef, the 250-page novel is a series of 10 conversations the narrator is in Greece to attend a writers’ teaching program. Each conversation, roughly 25 pages long, is with a stranger, friend, another writer, etc. and more often than not delves into the romantic life of said individual.

What is strikingly beautiful about the novel is that the narrator, this woman who goes by the name Faye, does not describe herself at all. Despite the book being in the first-person perspective, the narrator is invisible for the majority of the book, but by the end of the novel, the reader feels extremely close and intimate with this seemingly unknown narrator. Through the conversations she has with others, an “outline” is made of this person the reader so heavily identifies with. Furthermore, because the book is simply a series of conversations, stories that others are detailing, stories of their own problems, lives, struggles, accomplishments, etc., there really is no narrative, no plot, to the book at all. In that way, it is just like life, and Cusk’s writing is absolutely fantastic. I will most certainly be reading Transit and Kudos in the next coming months.

A King Alone by Jean Giono

In an 19th-century French village in the valley of the Alps, people begin disappearing. There is a serial killer on the loose who keeps abducting villagers, at first a young girl then men, and there seemingly no pattern to his victims; and worse yet, he is doing this in broad daylight, directly under the noses of the citizens. And so, to solve the crimes and catch the killer, a mysterious, no-nonsense, Sam Spade-esque detective is brought in to hunt down the killer. What ensues is a brilliant, exciting, and bloody tale.

The book, first published in the French in 1947 as Un roi sans divertissement (A King without Distraction) was the first book by Jean Giono published after WWII and marked a change in style in Giono’s oeuvre. Now I’m not versed in Giono’s writing, however, what stood out to me more than anything about this novel is his descriptions of the setting, specifically the weather. It is in his details of the snow, fog, coldness, darkness, and mist that creates the uneasy, sinister, and at times disturbing aura of this story. It was a weird one, to say the least.

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

This 1973 novel is the disturbing tale of Lester Ballard, a social pariah cast out of his small Appalachian town who begins killing young women. This is a book of murder, necrophilia, arson, and terror, and it is absolutely incredible.

McCarthy’s writing is unparalleled and in my opinion, he is one of the greatest living American authors today. His descriptions, lines comprised of few words, illuminate a world more vivid than the one in which we live, and yet more disturbing and sinister than one could imagine. His work has been described as Southern Gothic literature and compared to the likes of Faulkner; I couldn’t agree more. After I finished this novel, I went and bought ALL of his other work and I plan on reading more this year. Absolutely fantastic.

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

In this 1944 novel, Maugham plays the narrator-character telling the story of Larry Darrell, a young man who, discontent with the materialistic, capitalist mentality of highbrow society, seeks out a life of intellectualism and worldliness. He refuses to go into his fiancé’s family’s business, refuses to dedicate his life as a working man to provide for her and for a family, and denounces all wealth, status, highfalutin, bourgeois life and chooses to, in his words, “loaf.”

This book highlights contrasting values and the consequences of them. With a large cast of characters, Maugham illuminates the relationships that blossom by the effects of extreme beliefs. I was totally captivated by this story, with its multiple interweaving narratives that span decades and carry on to unexpected culminations. This novel is an eerie lesson in idealism, pragmatism, and total fulfillment. It is a work of art and I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes for a renewed perspective on life.

Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

By far one of the most disgusting, base, horrific, and sickening stories I’ve ever read and likely will ever read, and yet one of the most memorable and evocative. This 1928 novella by French philosopher Georges Bataille is a love story between two teenagers, an unnamed male narrator and his Simone (and later, a third lover, Marcelle). The story is a detailing of their sexual escapades that seemingly grow more and more base with each chapter until the novella ends in a deadly climax (I hesitate to use that word in this context) involving a priest.

What makes this piece such a work of importance is Bataille’s use of symbolism; everyday objects and occurrences are transformed into horrifying and unforgettable items and experiences. And the idea behind that is Bataille’s philosophy involving sex and death and his contention that the two are inexplicably closely-tied. The book, on the surface a piece of eroticism, is in truth a piece of anti-eroticism written in the form of an erotic novella. The contradictions and outrageous sexual elements that abound are what make this story an unforgettable piece of philosophical satire worthy of not only indulgence but analysis as well.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

This 1947 novel is a certified noir mystery classic. Early 50’s Los Angeles and young women are turning up dead. Strangled. Aspiring writer Dix Steele joins his detective friend Brub in the hunt for the elusive serial killer. Dorothy B. Hughes leads a reader on a wild goose chase, suspenseful and exciting from the very beginning to end with twists and allusions at every step along the way.

Man, I’ve missed good classic noir! I had read Dashiell Hammett a few years back and since then I had been aching for a good mystery. Not only did Dorothy B. Hughes not let me down, but she exceeded every one of my expectations. It was one of the most entertaining, easy, and fun reads I’ve had in a while. Her writing is impeccable, truly ropes in the reader into the black & white, classic, hardboiled noir style of the old 50’s detective aesthetic. I couldn’t help but read it in the stereotypical, Guy Noir voice in my head the whole way through.

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

This 1985 novel by German writer Patrick Suskind is the tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenoille, an orphan with an extraordinarily heightened sense of smell growing up poverty-stricken and destitute. He spends his entire life searching for solace amid the turmoil and tumult of the 18th century France, ceaselessly seeking scents and forever forming fantastic fantasies of fragrances. Oh, but also he’s a serial killer.

Never have I ever read more beautiful and strikingly real descriptions of smell than in this novel. In my opinion, the olfactory sense is the least of the senses elaborated on in literature. The essence of a scene’s scents often remains unseen. It is the opposite in this novel. In this searing portrait of Grenoille’s life, Suskind evokes the elemental bond between smell and a diverse spectrum of meaning, ranging from emotional to physical to sentimental to philosophical. In a way, it reminded me of Proust. It is absolutely stunning and adventurous read.

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s first novel published in 1965, The Orchard Keeper revolves around three characters in Red Branch, Tennessee in the 1940’s: a bootlegger named Sylder who murders a hitchhiker in self-defense; a fourteen-year-old kid named Wesley who is the son of the murdered hitchhiker; and Ownby, an old man who lives at an apple orchard where Sylder stashes the body. Sylder gets in a car accident and almost dies but little Wesley comes saves him and the two strike up a friendship. Meanwhile the police begin investigating Ownby’s property and eventually catch onto Sylder.

What an incredible first novel. Like Knausgaard to Proust, McCarthy is to Faulkner. The writing is truly unlike anything else. McCarthy is a master of crafting the bleakest, most evocative emotional climates, a virtuoso in depicting the most vivid of scenes, and the most imaginative creator of violence. One does not flippantly choose to read McCarthy and then easily turn the pages, no; one decides to open McCarthy and then wades through his prose, lingering on the passages to bask in the brilliance of his mind.

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

In this 1940’s novel originally told in the author’s native Spanish, an unnamed fugitive seeks refuge on a small island. In a series of diary entries, he describes his worries of being caught after a group of tourists arrive. Soon though our narrator comes to fall in love with one specific guest named Faustine and an interesting set of events ensue that culminate in one of the greatest twist endings I have ever read.

This short novel of only 100 pages was absolutely spellbinding. Not only is the writing fantastic– vividly descriptive and imaginative, complete with annotations that further contributed to the ironical sense that defines the tone–but the philosophical ideas and commentary on what is consciousness and is it something that can be captured are truly astounding and abound heavily in this novel. The novel won Casares the prestigious First Municipal Prize for literature, and Jorge Luis Borges (a friend of Casares) called it a perfect novel. A whirlwind of antics, hilarity, surprise, and total evocation, this was the perfect read to end the month.

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