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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

September Reads

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

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This 1925 second novel by English author Virginia Woolf tells the story of Clarissa Dalloway. Spanning the length of a single day, Clarissa Dalloway is planning a party; she runs errands up and down the streets of London, seeing and experiencing a number of different events, situations, sees and speaks to a number of different people, all the while trying to get things in order for her party. Alongside Clarissa Dalloway’s peregrinations and planning runs the story of Septimus Warren Smith, a post-WWI veteran who suffers from PTSD. His experiences, from the banal everyday events of a boring routine to being awestruck at the sight of an airplane, are irreparably marked by his experiences in the war. And it is how these two very different perspectives, along with many others, intertwine and weave in and out as the novel unfolds that makes for such an unforgettable reading experience.

It is arguably Woolf’s most popular and read novel, and indeed I had to read it for a literature course. However, the reason for its renown is because there is so much packed into this 200-page chapter-less novel. Woolf, a pioneer of modernism, explores the varying perspectives of a wide cast of characters, some of whom are dealing with very real illnesses. She paints the inwardly thoughts, sights, sounds, senses, from the point of view of the characters, juxtaposing versions of the same scenes so as to convey a commentary about a litany of themes. And her writing is exquisite–beautifully detailed lines of descriptions, fluctuating dialogue and monologue, along with fluid streams of consciousness. I did find this one more accessible than To the Lighthouse but certainly just as spectacular, and absolutely enjoyable experience.

To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia

This 1966 fourteenth novel by Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia is a social, political, psychological hard-boiled detective novel. In a small, Italian town, a pharmacist named Roscio receives a mysterious letter. Then, he is found murdered. His death launches an investigation, one filled with dead ends and more questions which only remain unanswered that is until literature professor Paolo Laurana gets involved. What ensues is a thrilling manhunt, one that reveals how interconnected the seemingly detached in an isolated community truly are.

Cross classic Dashiell Hammett with political and literary commentary and you get something like this one. Though I haven’t read him yet, it’s what I imagine reading Umberto Eco might be like (though likely not to Eco’s extent). This was a fun page-turner, rife with twists and turns and all that you’d expect from a work of Italian noir (if that’s even a thing). It was a quick, fast-paced read, with short chapters and flowing prose, an action-driven suspense with a surprise ending. Definitely what I was looking for after the weighty Mrs. Dalloway. I will likely pick up some more Sciascia sometime in the future as he has a long list of work.

All That Man Is by David Szalay

This 2016 fourth novel by English writer David Szalay is actually nine stories in one: two teenagers backpacking across Europe take refuge with an odd older woman; a lonely young man has an unlikely affair while on vacation in Cyprus; a late-twenties bodyguard gets wrapped up in a messy job involving sex work; a doctoral candidate and undergraduate having received some surprising news are faced with a tough decision; a journalist for a prominent newspaper reports on a burgeoning major scandal; a real estate agent grapples with existential dread; a bitter middle-aged man realizes he might be cursed; an extremely wealthy iron magnate falls into financial ruin; and an elderly man faces the end of his life. In each story, a character or multiple characters are faced with a unique set of complicated obstacles, decisions, and quandaries that work to illuminate the complexities of the modern world and man.

These nine stories are entangled by themes of unrequited love, infatuation, and affection that clash with unavoidable error, rejection, and missed opportunities, creating a poignantly modern take on masculinity and tragedy. The accessible and captivating structure of the novel–short sections comprised of even shorter vignettes intermittently imbued with stream-of-consciousness and experimental forms–is reminiscent of Rachel Cusk and Lidia Yuknavitch. And Szalay’s prose, terse yet grandiloquent, descriptive and fluid, was, I found, truly magnificent. The solemnity and scope of his character study, condensed as it were, rivaled that of Yanagihara, while his unapologetic and mordant salacity invoked tones of Houellebecq. But it was his imagination, the actions and themes explored throughout the interconnectivity of these various tales, that was unlike anything I’ve read. Szalay is a pioneer of this new style of realism. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and won the 2016 Gordon Burn Prize. It was easily one of the best I’ve read this year.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

This 2016 fourteenth novel by English writer Ian McEwan is a story with a peculiar narrator: a third-trimester unborn child suspended upside down in his mother’s womb. Through the thin walls of his mother Trudy, the unnamed infant hears everything and soon learns that Trudy is cheating on her husband John, the baby’s father, with his brother Claude, the baby’s uncle. Claude is a boring dullard compared to John who is a poet and whom the baby favors tremendously. Then the baby begins overhearing Trudy and Claude conspiring to kill John in order to begin a new life together, one without the baby as well. What follows is a wild tale that combines humor, romance, and murder, all told from the limited perspective of an unborn character.

A coworker pointed this one out to me and said, “it’s told from the eyes of a fetus.” I was instantly intrigued as I had no idea what kind of story that entailed. And McEwan did not disappoint. This is a novel borne of an imagination like none I’ve ever known; a plot and structure that simultaneously perplex and entertain; characters who interest, provoke, and amuse; all written in absolutely exquisite prose, grandiloquent descriptions, literary allusions, terse dialogue, and in-depth detailed introspection. McEwan is a master of his craft. This was my first experience with Ian McEwan, but if this novel is any indication of the brilliance of his work and his work is plenteous, then it surely will not be my last.

Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This 2015 collection of essays by famous Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is the first in his seasons quartet. Addressed to his unborn daughter and imbued with brief autobiographical expositions, the collection serves as both an introduction and philosophical examination on various things that exist in the world. Topics of each short essay range from the world of mundanity: chewing gum, rubber boots, plastic bags; to the natural world: plants such as apples, limes, and animals such as porpoises, lice, jellyfish; to the anatomical world: teeth, fingers, eyes, blood; to people themselves: Vincent Van Gogh, Gustave Flaubert, August Sander; to the astronomical world: the sun, the earth; to the realm of phenomenon: war, forgiveness, pain. There are 60 short essays in total split into three sections fittingly entitled after the months September, October, and November. Each essay is a unique look at the world through the brilliant mind of one my absolute favorites authors.

This was a reread for me; I had first read it a few years ago when I bought a secondhand hardback edition at a used book shop in downtown Philly. I picked it up again this month in accordance with the burgeoning season, also in search a daily dose of nostalgia and good feelings. And of course, I was not let down. Knausgaard’s insight, knowledge and perspective across a litany of subjects, is truly something to behold; but even more so is his writing. With a unique and coursing fluidity, meandering descriptions that bloom into a world painted in vibrant, ecstatic colors, Knausgaard pulls the reader in, revealing the beauty of the mundane in all its inexplicable glory. Philosophical, thought-provoking, introspective, intimate, at times solemn, at times hilarious, this collection of essays is an undeniably powerful opening to his four seasons quartet, which I now cannot wait to finish.

Machines in the Head by Anna Kavan

This 2019 collection of stories by British writer Anna Kavan is a compilation of her best short fictions from the beginnings of her career from the early ‘40’s up until her death in 1968 and beyond with a few stories and one journalistic work published posthumously. Each story is a dark vignette that reveals the intimate intricacies of Kavan’s imagination. A winter night, snowy fields and snow-covered roofs, cold bedrooms and sleeplessness to fancy restaurants among skyscrapers to cold concrete cells in an asylum–these comprise the setting; hopelessness, error, regret, fate, and confinement–these the pervading themes. One story blends into the next inspiring a seamless, seemingly infinite sense of existential gloom that has come to be her trademark.

I had read her most well-known work Ice a few years ago and I was floored. I remember thinking how I had never encountered writing like hers; the unnamed characters, the experimental style, the phantasmagorical feel, (that word is frequently used in association with Kavan) and the thrill of the plot. The stories in this collection carry much the same feelings. These stories are the exemplum of surrealism, and each is tinged with an undertone (or overtone) of suffering. There is a mesmerizing quality to Kavan’s prose; a hypnotic blend of mutable description, bizarre metaphors, and fluctuating direct and free indirect speech, heightening the ambiguity between character and narrator. Kavan is an enigma, a fascinating figure in 20th century literature, and Machines in the Head is venerating proof that she sits alongside authors like Silvina Ocampo and Clarice Lispector as exceptionally brilliant and fantastically weird.

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