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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

June Reads

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

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

This 1917 twelfth novel by Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun is a tale about a man who settles in the Norwegian backcountry and that is as simple and as complicated as it is. Isak, a burly, diligent, capable, though somewhat unintellectual man scouts for land in the valleys of the Norwegian mountains, and after settling, builds himself a home, finds a wife (or rather a wife finds him), and begins a family. As his farm, his children, and his fortune grow over the years, so do unforeseeable problems. Numerous problems arise from fortune, luck, inheritance, nature, accident, greed, expropriation, religion, politics, love, jealousy, and even murder. It is a complicated and long story of man vs nature, man vs man, man vs family, man vs himself, and of the inevitability of change spanning decades. The novel won Hamsun the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920.

It is impossible to capture in two short paragraphs all that this novel contains. The book is tantamount to East of Eden by John Steinbeck; Hamsun encapsulates in beautiful, exquisite detail the Norwegian backcountry, as well as the complications of living with the barest necessities and the human to human clash that inevitably arises from contentious disagreements and power struggles. The characters leap from the pages, vivid, relatable, empathetic; the plot, meandering from one scene to the next, carries the reader across the text in a captivating grasp; and the writing itself is nothing short of masterful. Hamsun employs a litany of different styles–3rd person perspective, exhaustive detail, interior monologue, stream of consciousness, fragments, and multiple tenses–making the novel a virtuosic blend of modernism and realism. I’ve read Hunger by Hamsun which I absolutely loved, so I knew going in that I would certainly enjoy this longer work of his. It is a monument of literature, possibly one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

This 1974 novel by American writer and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig is a fictionalized autobiography documenting the cross-country journey of an unnamed narrator and his young son Chris made on the back of a motorcycle. Initially joined by friends John and Sylvia, the narrator describes his every day excursions through the states where they face a number of difficult obstacles from harsh weather conditions and mechanical issues to disagreements and stubbornness. In each chapter, the narrator connects such an issue they face to philosophical discourse, usually meandering in an outlined and detailed diatribe. These sections explore everything from the philosophy of science, linguistics, and morality to history, epistemology, and ontology, eventually culminating in the introduction of Pirsig’s own ascribed theory of reality, what he calls the Metaphysics of Quality.

It is equal parts moving autobiography detailing a difficult journey and growing relationship with his son as well as an in-depth philosophical dissertation. Drawing on the influence from F.S.C. Northrop, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, Pirsig purports that “quality”–in itself an undefinable entity, or rather an event, independent of mind and matter lying in between subjectivity and objectivity acting as a source for a mutual awareness which thus defines the two–is the glue that connects the two outermost, diametrically opposed extremities of understanding: science and art, analytics and aesthetics, logic and intuition, technology and humanism, etc.–all the aspects of what he deems classic and romantic schools of thought. It is this “Quality” that binds competing perceptions of reality and reason; in a way, it’s similar to a theory of everything with arms that reach far into nearly every aspect of life. And the case Pirsig makes is very fascinating, eloquently accessible, and wildly entertaining. At times, the book was a bit convoluted in my opinion and there were some aspects of his philosophy that I would refute, but nevertheless it was still chockfull of intriguing ideas and certainly worth a read.

Whatever by Michel Houellebecq

This 1994 debut novel by French writer Michel Houellebecq, in French titled Extension du Domaine de La Lutte, literally “Extension of the domain of struggle,” is, like many of his novels, the tale of a despondent man. An unnamed 30-year-old computer programmer documents his sad life–despite making a fair amount of money, he’s misanthropic, fairly misogynistic, and uninterested in nearly all aspects of his life. And yet he’s seemingly content with his discontentedness, and he’s unwilling or possibly unable to make any changes. However, when he gets paired up with another work associate–a 28-year-old pitiful man with problems even worse than those of our narrator–and sent off to give presentations around France, his outlook on life, this contentedness with being discontent, is, well, affected. What ensues is a hilarious, eerily prescient, and at times nauseating contemplation on existential tedium, sexual liberalism, and worldly disillusionment.

Reminiscent of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, the novel is far more salacious, sullen, sardonic, and sad. But all the while, it is provocative, controversial, stimulating, and filled with an overwhelmingly exhaustive sense of cynicism that seeps from the pages. Also the prose is terse, dryly unromantic, starkly to-the-point reflecting the inner monologues of the protagonist, who is perhaps one of the most unlikeable characters I’ve ever come across. It is Houellebecq’s signature style: insufferable characters who simultaneously intrigue and repulse the reader. This debut novel provides a truly entertaining and graphic insight into his bleak and somewhat concerning imagination; a work that upon publication certainly cemented his name in the upper echelons of contemporary novelists. Houellebecq, as I’m sure it’s quite obvious by now, has quickly become one of my absolute favorites, and his debut novel did not disappoint.

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

This 1931 sixth novel by American author William Faulkner is the horrifying tale of the abduction of Temple Drake. Set in the Prohibition era Deep South, Temple Drake is a beautiful, young college student from a wealthy family whose date plans with a young local go awry. Having picked her up from the train station, Temple’s date crashes his car on his way to score some moonshine forcing them to seek help from the bootleggers at their dilapidated estate way out in the middle of the woods. Temple is taken hostage by the devious crew of psychopathic criminals and is subjected to a litany of unspeakable horrors. But, cunningly, she begins to navigate the hellish waters of the crime-ridden underworld; where morality is increasingly muddled; the psychology of man dismantled, defiled, redefined; and the true nature of evil revealed in its grotesque, corrupt abundance.

It is considered one of Faulkner’s most controversial novels, sparking outrage among readership upon its publication, which in turn inspired his literary breakthrough. Written in his meticulously detailed, syntactically brilliant, laconically grandiloquent, signature prose, Faulkner carves a tale so harrowing, it rivals modern horror. And yet it is in these innumerable harrowing instances where the beauty of his craft comes alive. The characters, hauntingly realistic and unimaginably deviant, drag the reader through a torturous labyrinth of suspense; the descriptions, the masterful details of the setting and movement that flow with a capricious mutability, seize the reader in a stranglehold forcing them to endure every word. It is a macabre masterpiece, a monument of southern gothic fiction. Faulkner is untouchable.

The Making of a Racist by Charles B. Dew

This 2016 memoir by American historian Charles B. Dew recounts in vivid description his own upbringing and long family history, both of which were heavily influenced and touched so deeply by the tentacles of racism. Growing up in the South during the Jim Crow era, Dew details his childhood: from an early age being indoctrinated with the history of the confederacy, aka the “true history of America”; on to his later years: his education at Williams College, where he was faced to reconcile with and unlearn his own resolutely bigoted beliefs which had been so ingratiated into his mind, heart, and identity. Dew dives deep into the history of the south during the Antebellum, Confederacy, and Reconstruction eras, detailing the slave trade and auctions particularly in the epicenter of industry: my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. And all the while Dew contemplates: the origins of racism; the blindness to evil; the systemic institutionalization of racial biases into policy, law, and cultural milieus; and the evolutionary psychology of white supremacy.

This memoir is simultaneously an in-depth textbook on racism, the confederacy, and the American South–their politics, education, values, creed, and heritage–and also the moving autobiography of one man’s transformation from red-blooded confederate, a blatant and unapologetic white supremacist borne of the indomitable conditions of the conservative South, into an educated, empathetic, and enlightened scholar with an undying flame in his chest to teach others of the horrible stain on America’s history that is slavery, segregation, and racism. And today Dew is one of America’s most celebrated historians of the South, teaching courses at his alma mater Williams College. This book was moving, informative, incredibly eye-opening, and an unforgettable, invigorating experience. It is required reading, especially in these turbulent times.

The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

This 1967 novel by English writer J.A. Baker is a field diary of man’s journey tracking a peregrine falcon through the English countryside. Over the span of a decade, Baker tracked these birds, watching their every movement, following their every habit, learning everything there was to learn about them; and the amount of information he gathered during this time is truly insurmountable. There is nothing he doesn’t know about the peregrine. The novel, which contains an exposition on the various details of the bird itself–habits, flight patterns, eating and hunting routines, etc.–documents one year of Baker’s tracking of the animal. And flooding from his series of diary entries is a fervent passion and expanding understanding of not simply a miraculous animal, but of nature, life, and man himself.

Words like interest, infatuation, even obsession fall short in describing what the peregrine is for Baker. The passion that burns in his chest is reflected onto the page with an abundant vehemence and a severe meticulousness to detail. Baker’s prose is unbelievably beautiful, mesmerizing and mystical, almost as if it is unlike writing and more like poetry or music. Filmmaker Werner Herzog said that his writing is “almost like a transubstantiation, like in religion, where the observer becomes almost the object–in this case the falcon–he observes.” And I would agree. Baker seems to transcend the distance between subject and object, specifically that of man and nature, watcher and bird, in a way that invokes a deeply spiritual effect that comes a result of his beautifully crafted insight in tandem with an empyrean eloquence. I would never have guessed that a diary about a bird could have such an impact. This is one that I will continue to open back up whenever I am in need of inspiration.

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai

This 1985 debut novel by Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai is the wildly bizarre and phantasmagorical tale of the sudden reappearance of a man thought to be dead. Irimiás, a charismatic young man with an interesting and infamous past, returns to a small, dilapidated unnamed village in the desolate Hungarian countryside with his companion Petrina. The few inhabitants of the town, who in themselves are already beset with innumerable issues–greed, crime, betrayal, vice, ennui, disease, dereliction, and even death–are bewildered by this man’s return from the dead. Some believe Irinias to be a prophet with the powers to save them from their troubles, to some he’s nothing but a conman, and to others his return marks the end times. What unfolds, just over the course of a few stormy days, is the unusual, tragic, at times hilarious, and unwaveringly bleak portrait of a sad, gray, spider-infested, town where even the glimmer of hope is enough to drive people mad.

The novel won Krasznahorkai the Man Booker International Prize in 2015, and one reason doubtless for the novel’s winning is its experimental form. It is split into two parts, each with six chapters that form a chiastic structure; each episodic chapter follows the perspective of a different character, each subsequent one concurrently overlapping with the previous; and each is written in a drawn-out single paragraph that spans many pages, a style reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard. The prose itself is virtuosic: a blend of exhaustively descriptive streams of consciousness imbued with dialogue that fluctuates from internal to external seamlessly, carved in diction stained with a deadened cinematic quality that seems to mute, obscure, and distance the reader from the words, as if there were a viscous film invisibly veiling the verbal film. And it is in this strange ambiguity, which itself inspires a permanently unsettling disquiet, that a labyrinthine entanglement of existentialism, nihilism, and absurdism is exhumed, one painted under a modern context, shedding light unto the darkest of life’s corners and injecting it with a mordant, sardonic, black humor which frequently spurs a simultaneous laugh and wince. Also, the book was adapted into a 1994 art film by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr and it runs over 7 hours long. I have yet to watch it but the novel is a masterpiece of postmodernism, an exemplum of the philosophical novel, and one of the hardest but certainly most rewarding and entertaining books I have ever read.

Pan by Knut Hamsun

This 1894 fifth novel by Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun is the story of Thomas Glahn. Captured in a frame narrative, he recounts his life as a 30-year-old discontent with society in the late 1850’s, a recluse who with his trusty dog Aesop has secluded himself in a hut at a forest’s edge in the Norwegian backcountry, confining himself to the solitude of nature–that is until he meets a young girl named Edvarda. They fall in love and a romance blossoms. But the more Edvarda’s capricious nature is revealed, which in turn seems to allude to ulterior motives, the more Thomas’s own internal demons float to the surface, and soon he is faced with a love like he has never known before, one that unbeknownst to him foreshadows deadly events.

It is one of Hamsun’s more famous novels, one that falls in the timeless tradition paved by the greats: Flaubert, Maupassant; and which inspired the likes of Maugham, Steinbeck, and Williams–a complex and tragic tale beautifully conveyed in a lucid realism that does not simply pull at the heartstrings of the reader but viciously cuts and stabs at the inner core of humanity, overturning the intrinsic relationships that bind one another together and dismantling the universal definitions of love. It is at times playful and lovely, and other times just the opposite: heart wrenching, tumultuous, full of pain and confusion; and yet all the while, it keeps its grip, seized tight around the reader’s heart. This short novel is a masterful reminder of the unpredictability of love, the intensity of human emotion, and the horrible consequences of a broken heart.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This 1987 fifth novel by American writer Toni Morrison centers on Sethe, a former slave woman who having run away with her daughter Denver to seek refuge in Cincinnati, Ohio shortly after the Civil War, faces a new set obstacles, the least of which is the ghost that haunts her home. But when an enigmatic young woman named Beloved arrives to her house, Sethe is forced to confront the innumerable other ghosts of her past, the horrific memories that come flooding back like a deluge. It is a story of maternal love, unthinkable pain, and an endurance found only in the darkest corners in our nation’s history.

The novel won Morrison the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, was a finalist for the 1987 National Book award, and its film adaptation premiered a decade later. It is arguably Morrison’s most well-known and popular novel, doubtless for its far-reaching depths into racism, the history and psychological effects of slavery, motherhood, and also masculinity. In uniquely elegant prose that at times verges on poetry–a masterful fusion of fragments, flashbacks, and frame narratives carved in unbelievable and dialectic description–Morrison paints not only the hardships, the pain, the suffering, that Black people endured at the hands of White people, the excruciating, unthinkably evil acts that affected millions and that had rippling effects for centuries after, but she also paints in vivid detail the experience, the strength, the resilience, and the hope that at many times was but a flickering flame in unceasing darkness. It is an intimate, emotional, and profoundly poignant novel that captivated and moved me in ways I could never have anticipated. One of the best I’ve ever read.

The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato

This 1948 debut novel by Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato is the tale of Juan Pablo Castel, a young Argentine painter who from a jail cell recounts the events leading up to his murder of a young woman named Maria Iribarne. Castel is a debilitatingly paranoid, painfully insecure, anxious overthinker who carefully imagines possible scenarios in excruciating detail, weighing plausible options and planning his every move before he acts, which often end up completely different than his envisioning. And when he becomes infatuated with young Iribarne, soon he finds himself descending into a mad and dangerous obsession. Written in the first person, it is an in-his-own-words portrait of a psychological anomaly whose terrible propensity to jealousy drives him to commit murder.

Upon publication it was lauded by Albert Camus, Thomas Mann, and Graham Greene, and deemed a classic doubtless for its in-depth explorations not only into existentialism and absurdism, but also art, love, and the depravity of the human mind. It reminded me of: John Fowles’ The Collector, for the character study; Luigi Pirandello’s One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, for the psychological descent and philosophical nuances; and also Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night for the confessional manifesto-like structure and prose–a blend of satire, hyper-description, and interior monologues, that simultaneously captivate, entertain, and evoke the questions that lie at the very heart of human nature and reality. I read this one cover to cover; I could not put it down.

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