Or, a reading list from the first 31 days of 2023
Dr Essai’s amanuensis, Mr K, has been grinding through his second covid-19 infection in the last three weeks. It’s enough to boggle the joggled mind. As a result, in the month just expired he did much more reading than writing.
The doctor does not embrace the internet’s frenzy for lists; lists, the internet’s corn syrup, are not the work of writers, they’re the faceless product of content providers. But Dr E does attend to reading lists posted by curious minds. He subscribes to the RSS feed of Five Books, which is nothing but esoteric book lists. Every few weeks, he checks on the ever-burgeoning reading list of the Eudæmonist. In bookshops of a higher literary caliber he always peruses the “what the staff has been reading” shelves. It even has been alleged that the doctor slips away from parties to scan the spines of the host’s library; he neither confirms nor denies the allegation.
Mr K’s reading lists do not go on for pages. He is not one to devour a book. He savors it, line by line, and if after 50 pages it seems not to merit the savoring, he tosses it aside (though readers will note one volume on the following list merited completion because it was so bad). Consuming books in this way makes him a slow loris as a reader, but when one spends much of a month supined by covid, the tally of books read adds up.
So, that which Mr K read in January, per the list he forwarded to Dr E:
- In the Woods, Tana French. French’s first, a psychological crime novel set in Dublin. Not what you’d call taut, yet overwritten only in a few spots. Astute and sophisticated. I finished sad that I wouldn’t be in the company of the characters anymore, and ready for additional Dublin murder stories.
- Antiquities, Cynthia Ozick. Cryptic, enigmatic, well-wrought. I’m afraid I read it in a distracted state: It will merit rereading when one is not possessed by monkey mind. I have not read much Cynthia Ozick but she seems to be one of those quiet masters of the trade who merits more attention.
- The Kindness of Strangers, Salka Viertel. Viertel was a Galician actress and screenwriter who survived one 20th-century cataclysm after another, all detailed in this memoir. She hobnobbed with Bertolt Brecht, Christopher Isherwood, Thomas Mann, Greta Garbo, and many more, resulting in too many tedious lists (!) of who was at a party or meeting or dinner or lunch. But the book achieves unexpected poignancy in its last quarter.
- The Paris Review No. 212. A meaty back issue of the venerable literary magazine. Highlights are the PR interview with Lydia Davis and a novella, Feathered Glory, by James Lasdun.
- Network Effect, Martha Wells. Volume six of Wells’s Murderbot diaries, the first one that’s of novel length. Inventive and formulaic at the same time, in a most satisfying way. Witty genre fiction that fully entertains.
- Distant Light, Antonio Moresco. A strange Italian novella, dreamy and creepy, that ends up far from where I thought it was going. A man takes over a house in an abandoned village for reasons never revealed, and becomes curious about a lone light he sees across the valley. Reads like a fable in places, but with a sneaky, unsettling plausibility. Not like anything I’ve read recently.
- Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, David Yaffe. The second of Yaffe’s books I’ve read (the first was his Joni Mitchell bio), and I made it through all 127 pages out of fascination for how badly he writes. As lame as he is as a writer, he’s even lamer as a critic and intellectual. He actually wrote of Barack Obama, “His blackness was self-taught.” (?!?) The editing is as amateurish as the writing and the only well-executed aspect of the book is the cover. (If you’re curious, the Joni Mitchell book is just as bad.)
Ever productive, Mr K has embarked on February’s reading, with Andrea Barrett, Lao Tzu, Rick Rubin, and Patti Smith in the queue. What have you been reading? Share in the comments section. It will save Dr Essai the trouble of coming to your house and inspecting your library.