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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

March Reads

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

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

Out of the Dark by Patrick Modiano

This 1998 novel by French writer Patrick Modiano is the first-person musings of an unnamed narrator as he reminisces on his adolescence and early adulthood living in Paris and London in the mid-sixties. As a late teenager he meets and befriends an interesting couple, Jacqueline and Gerard Van Bever, and joins them in their impecunious bohemian lifestyle. Eventually, he, the narrator, and Jacqueline run away to London and meet a cast of characters before Jacqueline deserts him. The narrator fast forwards then fifteen years to when they meet again.

It’s a short but fascinating novel. Written almost like a diary with episodic chapters that vary from half-a-page to ten pages, the peregrinations of these teens do not simply paint a portrait of mid-20th century Paris but also of confident and carefree youth, just dumb kids living life to the fullest. In an odd way, the novel seems like a romance; the narrator lingers on Jacqueline’s every move, he cannot live without her, and pervading the writing is a sense of regret, sorrow, forlornness that is undeniably honest. And yet, it doesn’t seem like a romance. The novel precariously walks that fine line between two valleys, romance and tragedy, and by doing so portrays life in an absolutely beautiful way.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

This 1930 novel by American writer William Faulkner is the tale of the Bundrens, a poor family living in rural Mississippi. The story revolves around the imminent death of the mother, Addie, and the subsequent traveling to her nearby town of Jefferson, her hometown, to bury her after said death. During the journey, which takes place over the course of nine days, the Bundrens face a number of problems including nearly drowning trying to cross a river, one son breaking his leg and having use a makeshift cast made out of cement, as well as another son committing arson, and also a sexual assault of the daughter who subsequently becomes pregnant and makes two unsuccessful attempts to receive an abortion. Needless to say, it’s a turbulent and tragic tale.

What makes this novel so extraordinary though, and certainly one of the many reasons why it’s hailed as a classic in the western canon, is Faulkner’s use of multiple narrators. Through a series of 59 chapters, the entire story is told through the eyes of 15 different characters, from child to old man: the family themselves, a cast of 7 characters; but also the neighbors, the doctor, the clerk, the reverend, and a few other farmers. Each character has a unique voice, a unique perspective, and each one adds a piece to the mosaic of the plot that twists and turns throughout the story. Not to mention, Faulkner’s use of stream of consciousness to convey thoughts, perspectives, and insight is quite a feat. It is simultaneously a heartbreaking portrait of a struggling family and an achievement of literary form. Absolutely incredible.

Transit by Rachel Cusk

This 2016 novel is the second book in the English writer Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. Much like Outline, it is the first-person narrated musings of an unnamed woman told through a series of vignettes, each one encounter between the narrator and a specific individual. Individuals include a pesky astrologer, a listless builder, a prophetic hair-stylist, an aspiring writer who believes she is the reincarnation of a famous painter, two determined Polish brothers, and a crazy pair of neighbors. Each encounter works to outline the narrator, a middle-aged, divorced woman who has just moved into a dilapidated apartment with her two young boys.

Accessible, accurate, elaborate, beautiful, comedic, and provocative describe Cusk’s writing. Each tale within Transit is so exceptionally unique and yet not simply relatable but so disturbingly realistic. Reading Cusk is like intimately meeting a cast of different people; a cast of the most diverse, strange, beautiful, ugly, funny, serious, and interesting people. Transit is not simply a study of the human condition brilliantly told through the perspectives of others, but an elegant and vivid portrait of a keenly intelligent woman searching for answers to the hardest of questions.

The World I Live In by Helen Keller

This 1908 book is a collection of 19 essays and one autobiographical novella written by American writer Helen Keller published when she was 26. Often considered a companion piece to her bestselling memoir The Story of My Life, this novel contains the thoughts, descriptions, ideas, and musings of a deaf-blind young woman with an unbelievable drive and zest for life. Employing the creative essay format, Keller reveals an insight into her experiences, prying open her wondrous mind and conveying her perspective through her breathtakingly beautiful writing.

It is the literary equivalent of synesthesia. Keller not only delves into her experience of life defined solely by touch, taste, and smell, revealing through vivid description hidden realms of tactual, olfactory, and gustatory perception teeming with philosophical intuition, but she also describes her dreams, writes about poetry, her relationship with nature, and how she contemplates reality might be for those unaffected by deaf-blindness. Each essay reflects Keller’s brilliance and imagination, each an evocative expression of her unique perspective. And each serves as a reminder never to take for granted even the smallest of things.

Woman in the Dark by Dashiell Hammett

This 1933 novelette by American writer Dashiell Hammett, a mere 76 pages, is the classic damsel in distress story: a woman named Luisa escaping an abusive partner seeks refuge in the home of a man called Brazil, who has a closet of demons all his own. After an accidental murder, she gets roped up in a bloody series of events that culminate into a shocking finale.

Dashiell Hammett is the master of crime fiction, the hard-boiled detective and noir novel. I’ve read his The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest, both of which are superior works in their own right, and this short novel fell right in line with those great novels. It was an episode of fast-paced action and suspense, complete with a twist ending. Perfect for a quick afternoon dive.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

This 1960 second novel by American writer John Williams follows Will Andrews, a 23-year-old Harvard student who leaves behind his life of academia in search for meaning in the great American west during the 1870’s. Andrews joins a hunting expedition led by the indomitable Miller, and they set off into the vast country after an elusive herd of buffalo. However, their trip proves to be quite a perilous one. Forced to confront harsh conditions, Andrew and the team undergo a transformation unlike any other and return to a world that is irreparably changed as well.

Williams’s attention to detail, the excruciatingly elaborate, vivid, and absolutely beautiful scenes of nature, not simply limited to rolling planes and towering mountains, but forest dense and waters roaring, is so beyond expectation it is astounding. With his diction, imagination, and his uncanny craft at writing, John Williams leads a reader through a whirlwind of emotion just as intricate as real life. Butcher’s Crossing is an achievement of the western tradition that captures the brutal realities not simply of nature but of the unpredictability of man as well. Truly incredible.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector

The 1964 novel by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, from first page to last, is one woman’s epiphany of epic and biblical proportions. A young sculptor, GH, decides to clean her house as he maid has recently left. Inside her maid’s old room, she comes face to face with a cockroach that sends her into a horrifying transcendental meditation in which she contemplates subjectivity, objectivity, evolution, futility, religion, and a range of other topics before ultimately committing a sickening act that she calls an “anti-sin.”

Lispector’s writing is unbelievably hypnotic, a mesmerizing combination of stream of consciousness and free association that twists words and philosophical concepts on their heads with each page. She simultaneously writes in first, second, and third person creating an unnerving meta effect, mirroring the words against each other. Too, sprinkled in between vividly bizarre and intense description of detail are incredible internal monologues that pose and confront some of the deepest questions, and in turn reveal the paradoxical elegance of life. This one was totally insane, seriously unlike anything I have ever read.

The Door by Magda Szabó

This 1987 novel by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó is the story of an unnamed young married couple, two professional writers, and their maid Emerence, an older and mysterious lady. Set in post-WWII Budapest, it is told from the perspective of the young wife reflecting upon her past. While the young couple are seemingly normal people, logical and reasonable, who carry out their lives in a nonchalant and unobtrusive fashion, their newly hired maid Emerence does not. Emerence is an unpredictable, unfathomable, unpersuadable, socially inept, overbearing, oversensitive, vindictive, aggressive, unreasonable, in many ways petulant and tyrannical old woman who takes everything the wrong way. However, despite these negative affects, she is still well-intentioned, loving, caring, proficient, and extremely intelligent, making her one fascinating character who leads the reader through a labyrinth of surprising and emotional events. The young wife and Emerence become inextricably intertwined.

It is the relationship between this enigmatic maid and those around her that drives the plot of this story. It is the ebbing and flowing of attachments, of love, of wild antics, and lunacy that simultaneously infuriates and gratifies and maintains an ever-present unpredictability that precedes every drastic scene. True too, not in simply the timeless tale, but in the telling of it that is also wondrous to behold: the narrator, presumed to be Magda herself, jumps around in the timeline of the events, giving away a multitude of hints and spoilers. However, these tiny accoutrements do not spoil the story but instead somehow enhance it. This one was absolutely beautiful, funny, heart-wrenching, and completely perspective-changing.

Third and Indiana by Steve Lopez

This 1994 debut novel by American writer Steve Lopez is the story of Gabriel Santoro, a young 14-year-old who, having fallen deep into the drug world and unable to escape, meets Eddie Passarelli, a 38-year-old despondent jazz musician with whom he falls even deeper in a trouble in the hellish, crime-filled war zone that is North Philly in the early 90’s. Alongside their tumultuous tale is Gabriel’s mother, Orfelia, who is on the constant search for her son, braving the dangerous streets at night and falling into impossible situations in order to save her son.

Lopez paints a searing portrait of the dark underbelly of one of the oldest, largest, and poorest cities in the nation, using his incredible imagination and knack for story-telling to make commentary on how environment affects the lower class. With suspenseful scenes and plot twists at every turn this novel read like an action film. Despite it being assigned for class, I surprisingly ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would have.

Black Spring by Henry Miller

This 1936 second novel by American novelist Henry Miller is the collection of extended vignettes of his life living in Brooklyn and then in Paris, France in the early 1930’s. Each section begins with a specific anecdote, everything from an attempt at a watercolor painting to his time working at a tailor shop to his spontaneous and at times dangerous love affairs to a very tense but comical dinner party to his drunken voyages around Paris. Miller paints so vividly his wild and plenteous experiences as a young man living what is surely a life to the fullest. However, it is not simply his experiences that make the novel so unbelievably captivating, it is in the form of the writing itself too.

Henry Miller’s writing is the quintessence of free association. Flooding the text are grandiose metaphors linking diametrically opposed absolutes, subversive philosophical assertions doubtlessly resultant of shocking revelations, vibrant descriptions of his dreams (which are insanely weird), surroundings, and imaginary realities warped into debauchery and impropriety to such a degree it’s comedic, yet poignant too, and so much goddamn more. His discursive diatribes, unpredictable meanders, pedagogical musings all convalesce into a truly hypnotizing body of text that shatters normativity and disrupts preconception. His is the work of both staggering genius and depraved insanity.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

This 1956 second novel by American novelist James Baldwin is the tale of a young American expatriate named David reminiscing on the events that have led up to the present night, a night before what is sure to be the worst morning of his life. In a frame narrative, David recounts his past years living in early 20th century Paris where he meets, befriends, and subsequently has a love affair with a bartender named Giovanni, despite David himself having a fiancée. David details the blossoming of his newly-found sexual awakening, a reluctant love unlike anything he had theretofore known, and the various problems that inevitably ensue. David is a man torn between a woman and another man, and also a man torn within himself.

This book was groundbreaking upon publication and remains still a seminal work of cultural significance today. It is an intimate and emotional portrait of love’s complexities, how they entangle, enmesh, and transcend cultural boundaries. And not just of love, but status, identity, masculinity, aging, regret, family, and competing conceptions of good; all immaculately crafted under Baldwin’s virtuosic prose. Empathy pours from the pages in torrents, and his description leaps, seizes, and thrusts the reader into a world realer than life. I fell into this one damn near instantly, was completely captivated throughout, and then had to forcibly crawl back to reality after a powerful shock of an ending. This one goes down as one of the best I’ve ever read.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

This 1947 novella by American author John Steinbeck is the tale of a poor Amerindian family: Kino, Juana, and baby Coyotito. After Coyotito is stung by a scorpion, Kino seeks the help from the closest doctor from an upscale, civilized town, but the doctor refuses to help because the family cannot pay. Kino, being a pearl diver, searches for a pearl in the nearby ocean to pay the doctor and finds “the pearl of the world.” This massive pearl becomes an object of obsession for Kino who, instead of paying the doctor and getting help for his baby, keeps it for himself. The town takes notice, and soon he is being pursued, and the chase culminates in a surprising twist ending.

It is often considered a parable, and it’s easy to see why. Its message speaks to the dangers, the evils, of obsession, as well as envy and avarice. The timeless tale is a character study of the human condition, illuminating the dark drives that lie quietly within us that only surface in the glimpse of potential gain. The tale is a tragedy, yet also an exemplum in morality. And of course, it is beautifully told in Steinbeck’s signature storytelling; his description, characters, and plot exceed the boundaries of masterful writing, as always. This one is truly an incredible piece and an exhilarating, suspenseful, heart-throbbing, and emotional ride.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

This 2005 novel by American author, and one of my absolute favorites, Cormac McCarthy is the harrowing tale of three men; Llewelyn Moss, a young man who stumbles upon a drug deal gone awry and takes off with a briefcase filled with 2.4 million dollars; Anton Chigurh, a psychopathic killer in pursuit of Moss who will stop at nothing to attain that briefcase; and Ed Tom Bell, the town sheriff whose investigation pulls him into the crossfire of the other two’s deadly mess. Out on the plains of the Texas back country in the year 1980, these three plotlines intertwine and entangle into an action-packed, suspenseful, and bloody climax that stands a literary testament to McCarthy’s bleak and unrelenting imagination.

This story was originally a screenplay (which later became the famous film by the Coen Brothers) but was written into a novel. And so, this one is not written with the grandiloquent turns of phrase and extraordinary diction that have come to mark McCarthy’s unique style of writing. This is one is written more Hemingway-esque, and as such is much more accessible to a wider audience. However, that did not take away from the brilliance of the novel whatsoever. This one is incredible; high-speed action, concise but vivid description, and unpredictable twists that surprise and confuse and keep the reader entranced. But as bloody, viciously violent, and macabre as the story is, so too is it moving, evocative, and completely awe-inspiring. I read this 300-page paperback in a single day; I could not put it down.

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