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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

January Reads

Updated: May 19, 2021

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

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

This 1913 novel by French author Marcel Proust is the first volume in his seven-volume autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time. The book is a meandering collection of fragmentary memories that depict the childhood of the young narrator–presumed to be Proust himself. Split into two parts, the first details various dinner parties, overheard conversations, melancholic interactions with his mother, and the many walks taken from their home through the natural ways of Combray. The second part centers around Charles Swann, an upper-class, enigmatic yet eccentric, cultured friend of the young narrator’s parents who lives nearby. Everything that occurs in the novel, all the events, conversations, happenings, from the banal to incredible, all the descriptions of which are filtered through the innocent eyes of the narrator and painted in exhaustive detail.

I had long heard about the famous “madeleine” scene (which occurs about sixty pages into the book) wherein Proust details the wonderful memory inspired by the smell of the tea and the taste of the small cake that brings him back to his childhood in Combray. Deciding to ring in the new year with Proust was an interesting experience to say the least: it was one of the most challenging books I’ve read but truly one of the most engaging, beautiful, bewildering, and enjoyable. Proust’s prose, from his truly imaginative metaphors to this long-winding, stream of consciousness passages filled with description upon description, analogy after analogy, musing on top of musing, is something unlike anything I had ever read. Simultaneously elegant and at times ridiculous, volume one was an energizing and wonderful read and I look forward to finishing the rest. We’ll see if that happens this year.

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

This 2011 book by prominent American critic, theorist, and academic Stanley Fish is an in-depth examination of the building blocks of literature: the sentence. Fish purports that a sentence is comprised of two parts: it is “an organization of items in the world”; and “a structure of logical relationships.” With these two premises, Fish analyzes the creation, development, and subsequent role of sentences, defining what makes a sentence good versus bad, describing the various styles that arise from such sentences, all the while drawing on famous pieces of literature to support his analysis. What unfolds is a fascinating, accessible, and doubtlessly utilitarian look into the sentence as both a craft and an art.

I had glossed over Fish during my studies of structuralism, particularly in relation to reader-response theory. When I discovered this slim book, which on the cover is described as “deeper and more democratic than The Elements of Style,” poking out from the shelf of the literary studies section of my bookstore, I knew going from the onset that it would be a fantastic little read. Fish’s ideas, his analysis, his plenteous examples and exploration, were beyond fascinating and forced me to consider sentences, and literature in general, in a different light. Reading this book has changed the way that I approach reading as well as my own writing, and I think it is a fantastic read for any aspiring writer or avid reader or anyone interested in simply sprucing up their grammar.

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

This 2007 twenty-fifth novel by French writer Patrick Modiano is a lucid snapshot of Parisian life in the 1950’s. The story revolves around Louki, a beautiful, mysterious, and free-willing young woman who spends a great deal of her time at Condé, a popular café in Paris at which the majority of the novel is set. Through the eyes of four different narrators–a friend, a detective, a lover, and Louki herself–her life, actions, experiences, and past are examined from a distance, each painted in a unique way that complements, intertwines, and at times clashes with the other varying perspectives fomenting suspense and unpredictability. What coalesces is a captivating look at an interesting woman whose character and fate evoke grander themes of agency, love, identity, memory, and time.

What Patrick Modiano so truly excels in is capturing the magic of youth, of mystery and wonder, of love, and of the hope of possibility that flow through the streets of Paris with un-diminishing force. As in Out of the Dark which I read and reviewed back in March of last year, in this novel Modiano too captivatingly explores the many facets of young love, the questions that abound and remain unanswered, the confusions and conflicts that arise, and the uplifting senselessness inherent in love’s experience. Not only is Modiano’s prose is fluid, efficient, at times terse yet all the while illuminating and engaging, but his craft of employing the multiplicity of narrators is wonderfully imaginative and uniquely rendered. This short novel was a delightful escape into the lives and loves of a cast of young people and their plenteous peregrinations and exciting escapades throughout Paris.

The South by Colm Tóibín

This 1990 debut novel by Irish author Colm Tóibín is the story of a middle-aged woman named Katherine who, discontented with her life in Ireland, leaves her husband Tom and son Richard and travels to Barcelona, Spain to begin a new life. The novel begins with her arrival in Barcelona, soon meeting a painter named Miguel with whom she begins to have an affair with. Katherine and Miguel, along with their Irish expat friend Michael Graves, migrate to the forested mountains of the Pyrenees, and eventually Katherine and Miguel marry, have a daughter, and begin their life together. However, the tumultuous pasts of both Katherine and Miguel slowly begin to catch up to them, infiltrating their new life and threatening everything they have built together. What unfolds is an emotional and heart-breaking reconciliation between a woman seeking happiness and the ghosts of past love, desire, and one’s native home.

Tóibín has noted that one of his favorite books is Amongst Women by John McGahern which I read and reviewed just recently back in December, and as I read The South, I couldn’t help but see McGahern’s influence on Tóibín. This book is an exemplum of realism; Tóibín captures the complexities of the human condition, with all the paradoxes, anomalies, unanswerable questions, heartache, and emotion, with lucid and at times, painful detail, exploring themes of love, freedom, art, and conflict in a terse yet poetic prose. And the way the novel is constructed–series of flashbacks, semi-epistolary, with different perspectives weaving in and out–it’s an achievement of form. It is astounding that this was his debut novel, which, as he writes in the afterword, he couldn’t get published for two years. However, it’s obvious in the strength and timelessness of his literary debut the prospect of virtuosity that would come to define Tóibín’s career. I cannot wait to read more of his books.

The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes

This 1973 book by French literary critic Roland Barthes is a sixty-seven-page essay outlining his literary theory regarding the pleasure of reading. Drawing on various schools of literary criticism including structuralism, post-structuralism, and psychoanalysis, Barthes describes how the “pleasure” derived from reading is two-fold: that there is ‘pleasure’ meaning ‘contentment’ and that there is ‘pleasure’ meaning ‘bliss’; and the relationship between the two directly correlates to relationship between the ‘readerly’ and the ‘writerly’ text. The way that a person experiences a text, reads a novel or short story, is founded on the inadvertent ‘play’ between these two modes of reading. From there he explores the various modes of criticism that ensue from this idea, and examines the use in understanding the aspects of the reading experience that often goes unnoticed.

On the surface, this short book appears to be nothing more than a crude metaphor linking the act of reading to sexual gratification; however, diving a bit deeper, one will find that the ideas expounded throughout are wildly fascinating. I came into this one having only read a few essays from Barthes Mythologies which had introduced me a bit to the structuralist side of his criticism–words like ‘signs, signifiers, play’–however, many of the ideas explored in this short book, he apparently introduces in his other famous work S/Z which I have not yet read. While I understood some of the ideas that he explores in this one (bizarre, complicated ideas elucidated in descriptions and analogies that wracked my head), I imagine reading S/Z would be much more helpful in approaching this short one. Nonetheless, it was an entertaining and thought-provoking short book and doubtless an important work of late-twentieth century criticism.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

This 1956 second novel by American writer James Baldwin is a beautiful, heart-breaking, and absolutely moving story about love. Narrator David recounts how as he as a young man living in Paris having expatriated from America meets a young bartender named Giovanni. David, whose girlfriend Hella has traveled to Spain, becomes friends with Giovanni, but soon they both become enamored with one another and a romantic, sexual affair begins. Torn between his feelings for his Hella and his feelings for Giovanni, as well as his sexuality and identity, David recounts the spurious events that unfold which inevitably end in a deathly denouement.

This was a reread for me, having first read it back in March of last year. And that first time reading it was truly an incredible experience, one that captivated and shook me to the core. Upon second reading, the experience was doubled, if not tripled. This is truly an absolutely remarkable novel. Not simply is it an entire semester’s worth of a creative writing course condensed into a two-hundred pager, but the story, the characters, the events, and the plenteous themes that abound in their searing, provocative excess is something unfound in literature. I wrote in my original review that “empathy pours from the pages in torrents,” well in this second read, those torrents flowed forth with a force that seized, pummeled, and tore me apart. I had to read this one for a class, and the discussions that ensued only served to amplify the significance and virtuosity of his one novel. This is a book that I will forever consider one of the greatest works of literature.

The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish

The 1666 novel by English aristocrat, philosopher, and scientist Margaret Cavendish is the fantastical story of a woman known only as ‘The Lady’ who, after a shipwreck during the expedition to the North Pole, finds herself the sole survivor and transported to another world. This other world, known as the Blazing World, is home to thousands of half-animal, half-human like creatures, whose civilization somewhat resembles her own. ‘The Lady’ learns their language, and soon becomes ‘The Empress’ and begins learning all there is to learn about this new world in which she finds herself. However, what she eventually learns is that many of the systems, institutions, structures in place which govern and maintain society are riddled with the same issues that were prevalent in her old world. And so she sets off to enact change, to help make this new Blazing World a version of utopia.

It is one of the most famous novels of the Restoration period, and it is also often considered among literary scholars and historians as the first proto-science fiction novel. The story itself is a feat of the imagination–the amount of detail regarding all aspects of science, philosophy, mathematics, religion, and geography is staggering. However, Cavendish, with her unrelenting wit, addresses a number of feminist themes throughout the story; she herself being a woman writing at a time when the subjects of her studies were largely dominated by men– something that Cavendish addresses in both the letter to the reader preceding the novel as well as the epistle at the end. And throughout the text are various hints, allusions, and even direct citations to her male contemporaries that reveal the detrimental effects of a patriarchal system. It is a truly significant work, both in its scope of imagination and its biting critique of society.

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