Letter No. 59: Includes a book in a box, two really stupid characters, and more mystification than is customary
This month, road trips plus a host of distractions, but still a respectable number of books read though not always comprehended. Two made me laugh, one because it’s wickedly funny, the other because it was so ludicrous; I couldn’t stop reading that one because I kept marveling that it’s considered a classic. It happens. Read on and these comments will make more sense.
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- A Horse at Night: On Writing, Amina Cain. Amina Cain writes fine sentences, but when I finished this novella-length essay, I still had not figured out what she meant to say.
- Nox, Anne Carson. A most remarkable “book,” book encased in quotes because Nox is one long scroll accordion-folded into a box. The folded pages are reproductions of a notebook Carson assembled by hand as an elegy for her tragic wayward brother, a work that combines the ancient Latin elegy that scholars designate “Catullus 101,” detailed and embellished definitions of each word of his poem, Carson’s memories of her brother, and other material. I’ve never read anything like it. Deeply moving.
- Agents of Oblivion, Iain Sinclair. Sinclair’s sentences are so dense with allusions to writers and writing that I know nothing about, this was slog for me, and I suspect I never got the point. He’s an extraordinary writer, but in this case I felt like I was reading a chemistry research paper for all I could make of it.
- Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher. If you have any experience of American higher education, as faculty, staff, or graduate student, this savage novel will tap every deliciously mean thought you’ve ever had toward academia. I read it in about three sittings. From the author’s acknowledgements: “Thanks to Lawrence Jacobs, world’s most enthusiastic and supportive spouse, who read the first draft of this book and said, ‘I’m glad we have different last names.’”
- The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain. Two of the dumbest characters in all of American fiction conspire to commit murder. This book’s enduring reputation baffles me. Had it not been brisk and brief, I’d have quit on it.
- The Analog Sea Review, Vol. 4. A unique project out of Texas and Germany: A hardcover periodical available only in print from independent bookshops. No website, no email. Write them a letter, the kind on paper mailed in an envelope, and someone will answer with letter. The collected essays in this edition interested me less than previous efforts, but that’s the way of eclectic anthologies.
- The Best American Essays 1999, Edward Hoagland (ed.)
- Einstein’s God, Krista Tippett
- Something New Under the Sun, Alexandra Kleeman
- River Kings: A New History of the Vikings, Cat Jarman
- A Year and a Day, Phillip Lopate
- The Anatomy of Color, Patrick Baty
- Best American Essays 2023, Vivian Gornick (ed.)
- Aliss at the Fire, Jon Fosse
- Our Strangers, Lydia Davis
- Pure Color, Sheila Heti