This, and a subsequent post will collect together a bunch of small books of no particular connection together. In some case I tend to find connections among various texts I end up reading at the same time. This is a product/habit from college and grad school where I would be taking multiple classes at the same time and looked to streamline my research and explore different ways to use the same critical texts in multiple ways.
But mostly I am trying to clear off shelf-space and donate books to Little Free Libraries.
Another Turn of the Crank – 4/5 Stars
This is a small collection of essays arguing for environmental security, environmental policy, forestry management, and farm and community wellness.
Wendell Berry is an essayist, memoirist, novelist, and farmer from Kentucky. It’s most interesting to look at this collection of essays from the context of 1995. Because of the focus on local communities, local economies, but also the environment, it’s honestly a perfect little book arguing for sustainable lifestyle. In a lot of ways he was responding to soil erosion, NAFTA, perhaps leftover anxiety over the Ozone layer, and other mid90s issues. But there’s a kind of timelessness about these essays or more so, a kind of relevancy to today’s issues with a refocusing on climate change.
Berry’s essays are passionate, sober and sobering, and direct in their earnestness and intellectual vigor. They are deeply political, but discusses the issues with particular partisan politics. This approach to showing the flawed general politics of either Democrats (or liberals) and Republicans (or conservatives) are on display here, and most remind me of AIM founder and Native American activist Russell Means’s arguments in his essay “For the world to live, Europe must die”. The push there is that whether the exploitation of natural spaces and natural resources is given over to communist or capitalist aims matters little to the preservation of those resources.
While I clearly have a bias to the specific politics of one party, one thing I have been thinking about it is how to find common ground with people I deeply disagree with, not to be friendly, but to increase engagement. The investment in local foods, local economy, and the local environment is likely the most useful place to look, especially given how the limitations of oil in the next 100 years will likely force more locality.
The Trolley – 3/5 Stars
This short novella is I think the final publication by the French writer Claude Simon, who won the Nobel Prize in 1985. The French have won a lot of Nobel prizes, it turns out, and one of the factors in his winning is the ways in which he contributed the the modern European French language novel — the nouveau Roman. This is an interesting distinction because I think they basically said the same things about JM le Clezio and Patrick Modiano when they won too.
Anyway, this feels like a final novel in an illustrious career. It’s a novel looking back at childhood, but also at concepts related to French literature. Without a doubt, this book is a direct reference to Proust’s famous scene in Swann’s Way with the Madeline. I know this because not only is it on the back cover, there’s an epigraph from Swann’s Way, and of course the novel tells us about reading that novel.
So this novel is more of a recreation of that writing exercise, but using using the trolley cars of Paris from the author’s youth as the launching point. What follows is an interesting, touching, but ultimately quite limited exploration of memory, youth, and city living.
Across – 3/5 Stars
So I didn’t know this about Peter Handke but he’s the screenwriter of several of Wim Wenders’s movies including The Skies Over Berlin. That’s really interesting and this novel is quite similar in a lot of ways to how that film creates city voids of isolation, meandering, emptiness and other similar qualities. The title refers to the narrator approaching an open doorway in both literal reality and in a metaphor for the space between good and evil or more so right and wrong and being presented with a passageway. This reflection suggestions that the doorway is not a one-way trip and also not an inexorable moment. This is interesting because the trajectory of so many novels is the focus on inexorable choices.
For this novel, he thinks back on two scenes of violence in his life. One, he decides was a more or less equal footing with the other person, and while not exactly self-defense, it was more or less in balance. The second he decides that he is squarely responsible. This leads him to discover or pursue how to process choices like these and still exist in the world the way he does is by chasing down the responsible party for a graffiti swastika he finds near his house.
So all this is fine and interesting, but here’s something else I learned about Peter Handke. He’s often or was often a front-runner for the Nobel prize (and still could be) but he made a choice in the early 2000s to not only attend, but euologize the funeral of war-criminal and genocidal dictator Slobodan Milosevic. So I guess this book 20 years earlier gives him the framework to reflect on that choice.
Nights at the Alexandra – 3/5 Stars
This is a novella by the Irish writer William Trevor. He’s a writer who’s always been in my periphery consciousness, but that I hadn’t read before. This book involves a young man in a small village befriending recent German refugees near the start of WWII, and this novel is told through a reflection of a much older version of the character. The story discusses the ways in which small town function, how gossip and innuendo pervade, but also how the concept of national origins, sides in wartime, and other factors play out in real time, and what we do with those ideas far removed from the conflicts themselves.
It’s a novel about forgiveness too. It’s also a novella I can’t help feeling is a perfectly good, but inadequate retelling of Sophie’s Choice, which follows nearly the exact same plot line, but with much richer, interesting, earnest, and satisfying results. It’s not that there’s anything particularly bad here but it’s an odd retread.
The Red Collar – 3/5 Stars
So the whole point of this post is to clear my TBR shelf of these little books I got from a library sale recently where you took a bag and filled it up for five bucks, and knowing me knowing me, I brought a giant ALDI bag and got kudos for my selfishness.
This book was one of those novels, and it’s both slight in its size and I think in its depth. It’s a curious and well-written novel, but I think it reaches relatively shallow conclusions about the nature of humanity and is feel good in a kind of unearned way.
It’s about a prisoner awaiting sentencing in a French war camp during WWI and this prisoner is a French soldier. Outside the prison awaits a dog (whom he doesn’t care too much about) but who waits patiently and loyally. The novel explores in more or less earnest ways the concepts of loyalty. It’s fine.
But like the William Trevor novel, I can’t help but feel I’ve read a much better novel that covers this same territory in Faithful Ruslan by the Soviet writer Georgi Vladimov. It’s a stronger and much more biting novel that reaches a more reasonable conclusion.
What is odd about this novel is that the writer is one of the founders of Doctors without Border, is a practicing physician, and has written several novels and won several prizes. So that’s interesting I guess.
The Secret of Evil – 3/5 Stars
I actually did like this in a lot of ways, but it’s a 3/5 for two specific reasons. One, it’s deeply limited as an odds and ends collections of writings from the now long-deceased writer Roberto Bolano. These kinds of posthumous publications are already quite fraught in their own way and are sometimes valuable as literary texts for study or for creative writing texts for consideration, but it’s rare, quite rare for them to be highly valuable for literary merit. I would say things like Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet or John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces being some of the exceptions.
Two, you can’t really do much with these writings unless you’ve read The Savage Poets for sure, Nazi Literatures of the Americas probably, and for good measure 2666. And so there’s an element of completionism at play here, but also required reading first.
That all said, there’s some really interesting writing. Almost all of it shows interesting promise or is reminiscent of the good writing he’s done before. So it’s weird.
Also I think it gave me a kind of nightmare in a strange way. I wrote extensively about Roberto Bolano for grad school and I had grad school dreams last night. I think it must have been because of this book. And that’s kind of crazy to me.
The Meeting at Telgte – 3/5 Stars
And so my post of fraught German language authors continues! Though I would argue that Gunter Grass’s legacy is more morally complicated in ways that read understandable, but his literary legacy is less so complicated. I honestly think The Tin Drum is one of the most impressive books I’ve ever read.
So, this book though is less so. It’s curious and interesting. It’s a retelling of a conference near the end of the 30 Years War in which a group of poets and writers come together looking to figure out how to use literariness and culture to heal the divide caused by the war. It’s a strange meandering text that all takes place within the confines of the meeting itself. It’s a Who’s Who of German poets in the late 1600s so you got that going for it.
What’s more interesting to me is thinking about how to heal the divide in our country (USA) if at all. I wonder about this all time. I am not talking about a We Are the World/Marianne Williamson kind of solution but more likely a Truth and Reconciliation/Nuremberg/new Constitution kind of solution. So that should be fun, right? This book doesn’t exactly provide any real kind of blueprint for this, but like The Handmaid’s Tale adds a critical time distance from the events captured and provides a sense of longterm perspective if no actual help or advice.