more lovely books
or, my favorite books reminds me of vacant half-built cathedrals
Do I need an excuse to talk about even more books?
Here are a bunch of mini reviews of some of my favorite books that you probably never read and maybe never heard about.
The Selected Poems by Wang Wei and The Late Poems of Wang An-Shih
Let’s begin with some ancient poetry. I don’t have much to say about these poets. I just really like them and think maybe you will too.
Their poems are typically short and naturalistic. Elegant and fragile but full of life. Ancient Chinese poetry, despite what I say later in this compendium of mini-reviews, is my favorite kind of poetry.
A Song of an Autum Night by Wang Wei
Under the crescent moon a light autumn dew
Has chilled the robe she will not change —
And she touches a silver lute all night,
Afraid to go back to her empty room.
Wandering Out with a Full Moon to Eightfold-Integrity River by Wang An-Shih
Thoughts turned far away from you,
confusion rife, I can’t sleep. Finally
I rise, gaze up into bright stars, then
saddle a horse and wander the road
east, thinking rivers and mountains
might ease my worries. I know you
ate no dinner. Come: we’ll ladle out
clouds together here at their source.
Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian
This is not an easy novel to pin down, as it strives to push the boundaries of what constitutes a novel.
Part memoir, part metafiction, part travelogue, part ethnographic exploration, part political, part ecological and environmental, part history of the Cultural Revolution, part the realities of post-Mao China, part folklore, part poetry, part mythology, part nightmares and dreams, part songs and revelries, part seduction, part sexual misadventures, part aphorisms, but, mostly, it’s a profound meditation on life.
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich
The reason I know about this is because my favorite writer wrote the introduction for it. Which doesn’t typically happen for debut novelists.
Sadly, Krilanovich seems to have never written another novel, but this one was a killer. For me, it really kicked off my interest in small independent publishing. Two Dollar Radio was and remains one of the best little publishers around and I don’t think they’d be who they are without this book.
Perplexing and mystifying, frenetic and endlessly engaging, The Orange Eats Creeps is a rare sort of book, the kind that's hard to compare. Many compare it to Burroughs, which is fair, I think. It has that same kind of wild energy, that frenetic and ecstatic prose that completely swallows the reader and gets her/him lost within the prose, but never caring.
The prose is such a pleasure, constantly surprising, constantly reinventing. It's a book that teaches you how to read it by pushing you in the deep end. To be honest, what happens, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you in clear detail—especially twelve years later. It certainly deserves a second read, maybe a third, but, I imagine, it's one of those great books that gets better with each read, rather than tired. First read is for the ride, and all subsequent reads are for understanding where you start, which direction you're heading, and how you get there.
Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas
I read this book because Joshua Cohen was blurbed by my favorite author and subsequently became an author I like a great deal and think a great deal about and he wrote an interesting review of this book eleven years ago.
I love this novel and all its abandoned-cathedral structure. If you’ve ever been to Sagrada Familia you may know what I mean by that previous sentence.
And it’s an unlikely love, even though I expected it to consume me. Nádas speaks frankly and at great length about sex, and especially about the physical mechanics of sex to such expansive and minute detail that the act becomes almost absurd and grotesque. And, if you know me, which some of you reading this may, you probably know how boring I typically find sex in literature. It really is my least favorite aspect of most books, though that’s a discussion for another day, but what Nádas does is almost beyond comprehension. This disturbingly detailed description of sex, the way he stretches a single moment over forty or eighty pages is somehow — against all reason or probability — mesmerizing. He turns sex into so much more than an act, ejaculation so much more than a biological function.
And this level of detail exists throughout the novel, past sex or personal ruminations, making a short and awkward drive to the hospital gargantuan in scope, where the past and present bleed together, where every breath and word and pause becomes significant to an almost comical degree, and you’re burning through the pages, at the edge of erupting in frustration and gasping at how perfect every sentence is, and the effect makes you weak in the knees, slack in the mouth, and embarrassed in whatever muscles allow you to write, because you know you can’t do this. You can’t even begin to try.
This ugly, giant squid of a novel grasps after the entire 20th Century and attempts to rip it to pieces with its grotesque beak. And though it maybe fails—maybe because it fails—it' might be the best novel I’ve ever read.
A Heavan of Others by Joshua Cohen
Joshua Cohen just won a Pulitzer Prize for his most recent novel, which is kind of cool for those of us who have been reading him for over a decade. But I’ve always liked this little prosepoem of a novel the most. Where some of his novels are big enough to cave in a skull, this one is under 200 pages.
The story of a Jewish boy in Jerusalem caught up in a suicide bomb and ends up in Muslim Heaven.
It’s gorgeous and kind of silly, which is also the best way to describe Cohen’s writing more broadly.
The Last Report on the Miracle at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich
A few years ago I read, I think, ten of Erdrich’s novels because I do this sort of thing sometimes. I liked almost all of them (excepting her dystopia) but loved this one most.
Erdrich is never described as a funny writer and I don’t know why. She may be one of the funniest writers I’ve ever encountered. This isn’t her funniest book (probably Four Souls is), but it is the most beautiful one, to me.
At its heart is the story of a woman who pretends to be a man who is a priest for most of her life. It touches on transgender identity in the Ojibwe culture, though Agnes/Father Damien is never described as transgender, and I think it's clear that she is not, which, in some ways, makes the decision to become Father Damien somewhat baffling, but also so realistic and natural. Even after she's been Father Damien for half a century, she still refers to herself as a woman, and treats her time as Father Damien somewhat as if they're unrelated to her own life. I have a lot of favorite scenes from this novel, but the one where she makes this bizarre choice is probably the best one for just dozens of reasons. Too many to go into here.
It's a very interesting novel about identity, culture, family, religion, and how all of those things intersect and interact.
She has much more famous novels that have won famous awards, but I’ll take this over any of them.
The Waves by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf is the best Modernist in terms of just plain style and skill. She’s not as fun or funny as Joyce or as slippery as Faulkner, but I think she pushed the style furthest and captured what’s both baffling and heartbreaking about it.
This novel is the best example of this. For a long time, I considered this the best novel ever written (if we discount Dostoevsky for reasons I’d prefer not to explain), or at least my favorite. This and a few other novels and movies influenced the writing of my first novel in immense and unshakable ways.
A chorus of voices sloshing and slurring together to form a harmonious polyphonic symphony that few others have even attempted.
It’s poetic and visionary and so meticulously focused on the minutiae of life that it makes your heart shiver inside your adult chest in a way that you never forgot.
The Book of Lazarus by Richard Grossman
This is another book that influenced my first novel. Specifically the single idea that got stuck in my head about a book that can be read in any order. And while this novel definitely has an intended order, I think you could pick it up and leaf through it in any way you choose.
The novel is a puzzle and a labyrinth and a scrapbook of and for the dead.
At its center is a noirish novella tying the disparate parts together, but the highlight is a brutal and pitiless seventy page sentence fragment that will test your patience and good sense with the abyss it opens before you and the monsters staring back out.
The Bridge by Hart Crane
Everyone talks about TS Eliot but no one talks about Hart Crane (except Sam Delany) and we are al worse off for it, though Crane couldn’t be without Eliot.
I’ve long since lost my ability to talk intelligently about poetry and so I’ll just say that if you love Modernist poetry or experimental epic poetry, you’ll probably at least find this interesting.
Town of Shadows by Lindsay Stern
Read this in a blur while waiting at a car dealership for my car to be fixed about a decade ago. It’s a peculiar book, relying on more than sentences and stories to give you the life it holds within. Full of odd math problems and experimental notations and lists and poetry and definitions that seem all wrong, Stern disorients the reader by dropping us in the middle of this town where nothing is quite what it seems to be, where absurdity and magic are just a skipped breath away.
Lately, Pierre has felt his brain expanding. Growing lighter, as if swollen with air. This morning, a thrust against the roof of his skull. Last night, a pressure in his jaw. Before long, he suspects, the whole machine will burst. Words will trickle through his ears, scamper back into the world. So as not to forget them, he has built a lexicon:
Mirror, n. A palindrome.
Loneliness, n. Wordlessness.
Indigestion, n. Swallowed noise.
This disorientation begins to feel natural, which is the real strick here. The novella shifts and bends reality, like dancing shadows, but growing in realness even as the mounting oddities threaten to capsize this town of shadows.
Jaganath by Karin Tidbeck
A short collection of strange, magical stories. Tidbeck’s imagination is both hilarious and seductive, pulling you into these strange anecdotes about imaginary animals, about a biological ark in the future.
All the stories are quite short. Just a few pages, and so you get a wide assortment here, but all of them buzzing with something that will someday be described as Tidbeckian.
Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett
You don’t often find genre fiction willing to experiment with shape and form, but this novel is so wildly playful and disorienting that you’re unlikely to read another book like it.
The novel both teaches you how to read it and then invites you in as it rewrites and reinvents itself, with characters recurring in deformed new shapes from the one you thought you’d come to know.
This is a novel as much about juxtaposition as it is about building a fixed reality for you to engage with.
Your mileage may vary, but if you’re willing to let your mind blur at the edges, this is great.
Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta
Found this dystopia to be one of the more interesting recent offerings from the genre. Lyrical and delicate, there’s a beauty and gentleness to every sentence.
There’s a natural and gradual development of the world’s future, as impacted by imperialism as it is by Climate Change. It’s an interesting way to demonstrate the way culture changes and transforms a place, how it can become inescapable.
I could say more about this, but I’ll leave it there. I like the slow accretion of details that reveal this place, this world, to us.
Edie and the Low-Hung Hands by Brian Allen Carr
Swashbuckling on a transient wasted landscape. You get swordfighting and the lyricism of a street preacher howling on the street corner about Revelations. Violent and beautiful and stark and existential.
I love this.
It’s weird and wild. Brian Allen Carr is just that kind of writer, though. Weird and wild with childlike enthusiasm for language and the way reality deforms if you play with it just right.