Taking nearly a year to read a new Roberto Bolaño is an unforgivable sin. Bolaño is the kind of writer who, once discovered, should be returned to every six months at the least. The cause of this shameful delay on my part is because for the past year I have been intending on reading his 900-page posthumously published finale, 2666. The past couple years I have been working hard to get better at reading more 500-plus-page books, but I definitely haven’t reached the point where I can pick up an 900-pager without months of deliberation. Last year I read Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote (it’s amazing, read it), clocking in at a satisfying 1,000 pages. By the end of this year, my goal is to finally read 2666.
Diversion aside, while I didn’t read Bolaño’s magnum opus, I did read a book that nonetheless reveals his genius. Nazi Literature in the Americas is structured as an encyclopedia of writers who were either born or based in Latin America and North America, and, as the title implies, whose work and private life were politically and/or morally dubious. But as a master craftsman, Bolaño takes this idea and explores it with eloquent subtlety.
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A lesser writer would have taken the concept behind The Answers and used its strangeness as a vehicle for quirk and comedy. But in Catherine Lacey’s hands, the story is explored with complete seriousness and a mournful melancholy that manages to make even the most exaggerated moments deeply touching.
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The New Me by Halle Butler proves that it is possible for a book to simultaneously confirm all our worst fears about the meaninglessness of modern life and to also serve as an argument for why it’s (mostly) worth living.
Millie is a thirty-year-old temp starting yet another low-paying office job as an assistant receptionist at an upscale design studio. She dislikes all of the women she works with and spends her considerable amount of free time overhearing their conversations and basking in how much more vapid and frivolous they are than her. She spends her evenings at the messy apartment her parents pay for, watching Forensic Files on a loop, eating the sad dinners that she can afford on her $12 an hour salary, and getting drunk on booze that she bought with money she could’ve used for food instead. If reading any of this is making you feel like a mirror is being mockingly held in your face, you are part of a gloriously miserable troupe known as Millennials. With infectious mirth Butler hits on the ceaseless anxiety, manic rage, and chronic helplessness that is existing in the 21st century.
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Things We Lost In The Fire by Mariana Enriquez was a unique reading experience. I distinctly recall being left somewhat disappointed by a number of the stories in this collection, especially the first few. They all would end with an explosion of nightmarish and violent imagery with complex supernatural elements, definitely following the end-with-a-bang mentality. And this endings would be a let down because Enriquez did such a good job building the atmosphere, sending the reader deeper into her characters’ nightmares, and you’d know that something horrifying was looming ever-closer. The endings just didn’t seem to add as much to the story as I had hoped, and took on the quality of a lot of shock and flash lacking substance. But at some point in the collection the complex themes and ideas of the stories started to align fantastically with the deeply disturbing imagery that Enriquez is so gifted at creating in every story.
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Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. was published when he was twenty-six. V. is sprawling, overwhelmingly complex, and clocks in at a nimble 547 pages. I turned twenty-six this year, and what life’s work can I place next to Pynchon’s at the same age? Well, I’ve written a handful of messy and pretentious short stories, and many messy and pretentious book and film reviews, and only the latter was published by anyone other than myself, albeit on tiny websites. But enough with the existential crisis this is causing me, writing about this book will be challenging enough.
At twenty-six, Pynchon had a comprehensive knowledge of a staggering amount of historical and technical information, which he expressed through V., with some of the novel’s most significant examples being: the British intellectual and political communities in Egypt at the end of 19th century, espionage in Florence circa 1899, German expatriates in 1920s South Africa, the Herero wars, Malta in the midst of the Suez Crisis and under German bombardment in World War II, and, lastly, the bohemian scene of 1950s New York City (although Pynchon did see this first-hand).
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The Bridegroom Was a Dog by Yoko Tawada is enormously strange and wonderfully perverse. Set in an Asian town that feels modern yet classical, the anonymity of the town is what makes the casually bizarre happenings of the story so easy to accept. There is this clash between the traditional value-focused mindsets of the community and the bizarre eccentricities of the central characters. Tawada captures something about human nature that is timeless and seems to have only gotten truer. We are so willing to accept people’s strange qualities, and in doing so pat ourselves on the back for being so open-minded, as long as those qualities remain at a distance, preferably out of sight, and don’t directly involve us. We love to humor belief in the out-of-the-ordinary and fantastic, imagine the world as an exciting and incredible place, but we want our own lives to remain simple and contained within our own determined boundaries. And this describes the various housewives’ reactions to Miss Kitamura and her strange new house guest. The housewives hear from their children about various quirks of Miss Kitamura’s, who is their day school teacher, and are morbidly fascinated by this strange woman, but as long as their children don’t seem negatively influenced by her sporadically strange behavior they are more than willing to explain it away as the product of their children’s active imaginations. But when quiet and pretty Miss Kitamura suddenly has a strange man living with her and seems unwilling and unable to explain her new situation, her strangeness becomes an alarming potential influence on their children.
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It is a special satisfaction to finally read a book that has been on your list for as long as you can remember. It’s an even special-er satisfaction when that book lives up to your expectations, as was the case with The Haunting of Hill House. However, now I am faced with the challenge of writing about a book that has been extensively written about by writers far more suited to the challenge than I am (Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Miller, Carmen Maria Machado, Neil Gaiman, etc). I’m going to give it a crack nonetheless, but will keep it brief and to the point.
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