Search
  • Russell Magee

November Reads

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





McTeague by Frank Norris

This 1899 third novel by American author Frank Norris is a story of greed, power, and jealousy. Set in San Francisco in the recent wake of the Gold Rush, McTeague, a large-bodied, awkward, reserved, dull-minded dentist, putters through life seemingly without ambition, content simply in his ordinary routines–his business, his beer, and his concertina. He has few acquaintances, mostly his neighbors living in the same apartment complex, and a friend named Marcus, an extroverted, energetic, shrewd young man. One day Marcus brings his cousin Trina, a beautiful, reticent young lady, to McTeague to repair a broken tooth, and McTeague, taken by the young lady, immediately falls in love. After first refusing his marriage proposals, Trina finally gives in and agrees to marry McTeague; but just before their wedding day, she wins the lottery, a whopping total of $5000. While her winnings incite a quiet jealousy among their friends and family, McTeague is thrilled, eager to begin his new life and confident in his prospective happiness. But married life is not what he expects it to be; Trina becomes incredibly taken with her winnings, overly frugal, intent not to spend a dime, but only add to the large sum through means of rigid economy and saving. When McTeague’s business falters, their marriage begins to spiral downward which in turn ignites a series of sinister events. It is a tale that explores the deadly repercussions which arise out of avarice, envy, and the distinctively American monster that lies quietly in the breast of man awaiting exhumation.

The novel is often considered a benchmark for American naturalism–a literary movement that emerged in early 1890’s in America at the heart of which lies both “an attempt to merge objective scientific method with large philosophical models of existence” and an ideology “rooted in a materialist concept of man and the universe–that is, a modification or outright denial of traditional spiritual, moral, and idealist concepts” (GR Thompson). And indeed, lying beneath the veneer of a simple narrative depicting the unambitious life of a lonely dentist whose inner demons are lured from the depths by infatuation and greed is an incredible, insightful excavation into the human condition, one which reveals that atavistic and, at times monstrous, instincts inspired and fueled by money, lust, and power. Over a sizable cast of characters, each complex and unique in their own ways, and the various relationships between them, there is so much to be gleaned from this novel. But beyond the multitude of interpretative lenses with which a reader can analyze the novel, most salient and enjoyable is simply the experience of falling into a deep and absolutely entertaining story. It is interesting, confounding, hilarious, and tragic from beginning to end. And Norris’s prose is as precise and meticulous as it is elegant and enlightening. No detail escapes his scrutinizing eye, and with his intellectual breadth of history, economy, culture, and psychology, Norris has written a novel that captures a time, place, and the people therein with an uncontested realism which propels the story into the modern age. It was one of most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had in a long time, and the novel’s ending…wow, that was really something. I definitely plan on reading more of his work, hopefully soon.




Stoner by John Williams

This 1965 third novel by American writer John Williams follows the life of an academic, a life defined by passion, work, and the unrelenting, at times tragic, forces of fate. William Stoner, a quiet young man born into a farming family, attends college at the University of Missouri with the intent to study agriculture, destined to carry on his father’s business. While at school, Stoner discovers a revelatory passion for literature and decides to pursue his studies, eventually taking a Masters and PhD in literature and becoming a college English professor. During his studies, he meets Edith Bostwick, a whimsical young lady who, after Stoner’s awkward attempts of courtship, agrees to marry him. The two begin a life together, one marked not by passion and love, but of acquiescence and compliance. As the years pass by, Stoner relishes in his work at the University, but Edith falls into a depression which appears momentarily reprieved with the birth of their first child. But slowly, the pains of discontent return with a vengeance, threatening to ruin all that Stoner has worked for–in his career, in his family, in his life at large. It is a beautifully tragic portrait of the complexities of the human relationships, at the heart which lie unspoken words, instances of inaction, and an existential submission to the capricious whim of life.

I first read this book a few years ago, and the impact it made on me was nothing short of revelatory. Upon second reading, its impact only seemed to intensify. It is one of those rare novels that I consider to be perfect. Rereading it was at once invigorating and heartbreaking; an experience that makes me grateful that books like this exist and that I have the chance to read them in my lifetime. The novel is magnificent in every sense: Williams’s prose is immaculate, both elegant and precise in form, with innumerable lines which one cannot help but just savor; each character is complex and real, captured and treated with unflinching honesty; and the thematic elements–love, passion, literature, meaning in life–elevate the narrative into a light of intellectualism, beauty, and significance. It is a novel that, even when closed and set aside, coaxes contemplation, impelling the reader to empathetically ruminate over the characters, events, and the answerable questions that they inspire. Its capacity to affect one’s perspective on life, in so many aspects, is truly remarkable, and for the lover of literature, of learning, of life, it is an especially memorable reading experience, one unlike any other. Stoner is one of my favorite novels of all time and one I will continue to read over and over again throughout my lifetime, certain to expect new revelations, new questions, and new understandings.




Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

This 1998 eighth novel by American writer Cormac McCarthy is the third and final installment of The Border Trilogy. The story follows the protagonists of the first two volumes–John Grady Cole of All the Pretty Horses and Billy Parham of The Crossing–who currently work together as hands on a cattle ranch in south New Mexico close to the borders of Texas and Mexico. Despite the hard work, insubstantial wages, and the unpredictable climate conditions which threaten the future of ranch business, John Grady and Billy thrive in their element, working with horses and frequenting the bars and brothels. But things take turn for the worse when John Grady falls in love with a young, epileptic prostitute named Magdalena who works in a Mexican brothel owned by the indomitable and dangerous Eduardo who will stop at nothing to keep her ensnared. John Grady promises to marry her and save from the clutches of her abusive situation despite the repeated admonitions from Billy not to mess with the hellish brothel owner and his sordid, bloodthirsty band of henchmen.

It’s difficult to express my feelings for this concluding volume, the end to a trilogy that has moved me in ways that most books I have not. But just as the first two volumes had held me in grip of enthrallment, captivated by McCarthy’s darkly elegant, finely-tuned lines of prose, and seized by both the characters and narrative, Cities of the Plain brilliantly followed suit and exceeded any and all of my expectations. This wild novel, nearly three hundred pages long, captures the beauty, sorrow, violence, love and loyalty, probing deep into the nature of good and evil and painting in blood a distinctive desperation rooted only in the soil of the American frontier. Imbued across the painstaking trials and tribulations that mark the characters’ respective trajectories are stories within stories, frames that excavate the timeless history of their ancestors, tales of survival, dreams, loss. And imbued further are the fragments of McCarthy’s philosophy of metaphysics, lines and dialogue diving into his incredibly intelligent perspective on the fabric of time and the interconnectedness of humanity. This is a truly astounding novel, and The Border Trilogy as a whole is a literary achievement. These are novels I will continue to revisit time after time again, and I cannot wait.




The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

This 1989 eighth book by American poet, essayist, and novelist Annie Dillard is at once an instructional writing guide, ars poetica, and collection of autobiographical anecdotes, all of which center around the craft of writing and the challenges therein. Split into seven chapters, Annie Dillard expounds various techniques that help a burgeoning writer hone their craft, all the while supporting her claims with personal stories from her own life, quotes and backstories from other famous writers, and introspectively musing on the importance, power, and art of writing and literature. Dillard writes about her own experiences writing, from poetry to prose to the journals which would comprise her Pulitzer Prize winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, spanning the distance from university libraries to a tiny, cold cabin off the coast of Puget Sound where chopping wood was a necessary task to stay warm. In each of the short sections, Dillard’s insightful, intelligent perspective shines with a majestic brilliance, unearthing the pains and triumphs that mark the life of a writer, painting a beautiful little book filled with incredibly useful and timeless advice.

The Boston Globe called the short book “a kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of the writer’s task”; The Chicago Tribune also wrote that, “For nonwriters, it is a glimpse into the trials and satisfactions of a life spent with words. For writers, it is a warm, rambling conversation with a stimulating and extraordinarily talented colleague.” And indeed, reading the book feels like a conversation with a friend, with a professor, with an erudite scholar, with an accomplished writer whose perspective of the craft is as deep and developed as it is completely fascinating. I had had this thin book on my shelf for a while, having picked it up after finding numerous citations to it in other books and essays. And I read the whole thing in one sitting, completely entranced. Dillard’s prose is poetic, precise, illuminating, and simply beautiful; her ability to rope the reader in, paint one of her memories with meticulous detail, it feels as if the reader is at the desk with her, straining over the myriad challenges and basking in the triumph that finally comes. This tiny book is a beacon of inspiration for the aspiring writer.




The Sweet Indifference of the World by Peter Stamm

This 2018 fourteenth novel by Swiss author Peter Stamm is the tale of two couples– Christoph and Magdalena, Chris and Lena–whose respective romances, despite taking place two decades apart, appear to be one and the same. Set in contemporary Stockholm, Christoph, a middle-aged, former writer, invites a young Lena to meet him in a cemetery wherein he regales his life story, one marked by of a past romance between himself as a young man and the beautiful Magdalena. As he relays the details of his long-lost relationship, one marked by passion, ambition, heartbreak, and jealousy, the uncanny similarities between Lena and Magdalena, between Chris and Christoph, between the past and the present, begin to arise. What follows is an interconnected loop of double lives, doppelgangers, and shared experiences at the heart of which is a metaphysical exploration into the duplicitous and circuitous nature of time and love.

This short book, barely spanning a hundred pages, is a metafictional roller coaster, one that weaves together memories “folded like bed sheets,” time, love, and multiple lives into a mind-boggling mosaic that closes the gap between literary realism and slipstream fiction. And the genius in Stamm’s novel is in its form. The novel is structured as a narrative and a frame narrative within: Christoph and Lena in the present; Christoph’s story in the past. But each short chapter fluctuates between present and past, with various movements and details invoking their doubled counterparts to reveal a certain temporal transcendence, creating somewhat of a double helix of narratives, similar lives spinning around and reflecting the other, separated only by time. Stamm’s novel takes the narrative circularity reminiscent of Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango and Cortázar’s short story “Continuity of Parks” and throws it into a new dimension, creating a strange spiral of interweaving trajectories. However, the novel’s seemingly complex structure is offset by the readability of Stamm’s prose–minimalist, terse, fluid.




The Dark by John McGahern

This 1965 second novel by Irish author John McGahern is a searing and emotionally-fraught coming-of-age story. Set in the rural Irish countryside, the story follows young Mahoney, from late childhood through adolescence, as he struggles against the abusive and strained relationship with his father, old Mahoney. Despite his father’s will for him to stay and help with their family’s potato farm, young Mahoney, excelling in school, pursues a career in the clergy. However, as he beings to mature, his burgeoning sexuality and free-wheeling inhibitions threaten to endanger his future plans as guilt, shame, and eternal damnation slowly begin to descend upon the young man.

The novel is often compared to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and it is easy to see why. Young Mahoney walks in the footsteps of young Stephan Dedalus, faced with similar challenges–adolescent maturity, sexual awakening, loss of faith–which only grow fiercer as he grows older. And like Joyce, McGahern’s craft of writing is truly remarkable; narration leaps back and forth from first- and second-person, Mahoney reciting the tale as if to a mirror reflection, the reader finding themselves in him; his meticulous attention spares no detail–the snow on a tree’s branches, the cobblestones of the sidewalks, the spires of the churches are all treated with the same affection and honesty as his characters. This was searing, heartbreaking short read, just another source of confirmation that John McGahern is one of the most brilliant, underrated authors of the twentieth-century.




Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance by Richard Powers

This 1985 debut novel by American novelist Richard Powers is a tri-narrative literary triptych centering around a photograph. One storyline revolves around an unnamed narrator who, upon seeing in a Detroit museum a cryptic black-and-white photograph depicting three farmers clad in black suits with canes, becomes obsessed and sets off to search for the backstory behind the photograph. The second storyline follows the men in the portrait, three young relatives living in Germany on the brink of WWI, caught up in a web of romance, drama, and politics. The third storyline takes place in the 1980’s in Boston where magazine editor Peter Mays, similar to the narrator of the first, becomes entranced not with a photo, but with a mysterious red-headed clarinet player and embarks on a journey to find her, a journey that, with each clue discovered, begins to shatter all sense of personal history and cosmic understanding of the word. Interspersing the interweaving threads of storylines are long contemplations on technology, photography, and the interconnectedness of humanity across time.

Seldom have I come across so intellectual a debut novel. Powers’s breadth of historical knowledge, scientific understanding, and cultural commentary verges on that of Pynchon; his unexpected narratives twists and turns, meticulous attention to detail, and peculiar dialogue on that of DeLillo; and this acerbic wit, unique sardonicism, and crass hilarity on that of Roth. The backstory to the novel is interesting, too: in 1980, Richard Powers was working as a computer programmer and living in Boston when he came across famous German photographer August Sander’s Three Farmers on Their Way to Dance, 1914 where at once he was so taken aback by the picture, he quit his job and for two years wrote this debut novel. This one photograph launched a literary career which would earn Powers the Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for his twelfth novel The Overstory. And upon reading this remarkable debut, I cannot wait to read all of his work. His prose is captivating, his imagination spanning, and his scope of knowledge as deep as his narrative vision spanning genres from picaresque to romance to mystery thriller. I was truly astounded by this one; could not put it down.




Devotion by Patti Smith

This 2017 short book by American singer-songwriter, musician, and award-winning writer Patti Smith is at once a fascinating and deeply intimate portrait of a writer’s life as well as an elegant, tale of youthful love and obsession. Split into four sections, Smith first leads the reader down the windy streets of Paris, from café to cemetery, imbuing her beautiful, vivid description with brief glimpses into her writing process and her literary musings on famous writers such as Patrick Modiano and Simone Weil. Then comes the searing “Devotion,” a short story about a young ice-skater and her lovely yet tumultuous relationship with an overly ardent and possessive young man, a dalliance which invokes the deepest of emotions and a timeless, universal youthful nostalgia. Then she leaps back into the world of the real, forming something of a travel log as she details an excursion to Albert Camus’s former home wherein, she is granted an opportunity to read the original manuscript which would become his debut work. Lastly, Smith ends with a section comprised solely of facsimiles and photos of her own artistic creations. Sowing artistry, influence, and interconnectedness, Devotion is a powerful gem teeming with intelligence and virtuosity, guaranteed to inspire alike both the novice writer and the non-artist seeking only a few hours’ entertainment.

It seems wrong that such a short book, spanning a little over a hundred pages with text scantily filling the tiny pages, should be my first introduction to Patti Smith’s prose, aside from a foreword she wrote to a reissue of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell which I read last year. But safe to say, even from this short-lived taste of her work, it will surely not be the last. As in the case with the lyrics to her songs, Patti Smith’s writing exists in that liminal space between prose and poetry, between memoir and fiction, never for a moment falling short in completely captivating, enrapturing the reader, pulling them closer and closer into the radiant world of her words, a world resplendent and abundant with the subtle beauty and melancholy of life which only the most delicate, honest, and observant of writers can accurately arrest. There is something hypnotic that permeates the text of this short book, something resting just on the edge of sublime and abject but which nonetheless invokes a humanity which binds artist to art, writer to work, person to world. This is such a powerful little piece, a pocketful of timeless ideas, sure to consistently inspire whoever reads it, and I am sure to return to it again and again.


20 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All