Down Don’t Bother Me – 3/5 Stars
This is a short gritty Illinois coal country noir novel. I picked it up because I follow the author online but only know him through his relatively insightful and mostly very angry response to the garbage world we all live in. When I was able to grab a copy of his book I did.
The novel takes place in southern Illinois in those kinds of rural spaces where there’s a lot of open land, little townlets, and in this case, many many different coal mines. The narrator is a miner who has recently been laid off, and is offered a chance to solve a mystery (from his past experience doing some informal detective work) and while the money is pretty good, the contractor offers to fully fund his pension for life, giving him and his daughter some much needed security. The contractor, of course, is a mine owner who is trying to solve the disappearance of his son in law. As the novel moves forward, our narrator, as the narrators of many a noir novel uses clever if goofy metaphors to describe in middle of Nowhere America and how truly violent white people often are in small towns. It’s a solid book, that promises future cases and those could also be good. It’s hard not to think a little of Red Harvest on this one, even if the plots are not much similar.
Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House – 3/5
This is a classic kind of book, progenitor to a well-loved future film, a kind of archetype of middle class American absurdity, and more cutting of American values than a lot of more serious books. It’s also goofy and absurd, and belabors the point a little much by the end.
Mr and Mrs Blandings are in the market for a new house. Wanting to get out of the bustle of New York City and with Mr Blandings’s generous Madison Avenue salary (see: archetype) they settle in on a large property upstate–some fifty acres with a decaying farmhouse. They enter into negotiations to buy the house and the bidding war, followed by the reveal that the property is not as big as they hoped is foreshadowing for all the problems coming their way. So it’s the kind of novel where each step is a further entrenchment into sunk cost fallacy as more and more money is spent to perfect the house (while the house remains forever imperfect) and it’s the precursor to something like Mad Men in a way, Revolutionary Road in another, and Money Pit to be sure.
Growing Up – 4/5 Stars
Speaking of middle class values, here’s a book that helped to create a version of them in the early 1980s. So Russell Baker is the host of Masterpiece Theater, a show I only know by tuning in accidentally when I was looking for the Disney parody, Mousterpiece Theater, hosted by George Plimpton. So I don’t actually have the same level of familiarity that most people do with the show.
Anyway, the book purports be the memoir of childhood of the host, but I think his presence on tv sort of overshadows what ends up being a much different project when it comes down to it. So what this means is that Russell Baker is so associated with white middle-brow culture, that telling the story of growing up in Virginia in the 1930s and 1940s ends up being a more specific and interesting story than we normally get. Yes, white people have been narrating their lives in the South forever, but something struck me about this one. I think it’s probably in part because I grew up (and still live) in Virginia, and I am always a little in awe of people writing about places I know well, but I also think it’s because the book is really good at avoiding sentimentalism. So while the bulk of the book takes place in the same time period (actually a little earlier) than say, A Christmas Story, the actual stories and writing are more authentic and honest (including what I think is so often left out of older books–an honesty about sexuality).
Malone Dies – No Rating
The second book of the “Trilogy” trilogy by Samuel Beckett and in many ways this feels like a remix or even rehash of the first book in the series Molloy with the biggest difference being that in that book (which is about twice as long) there’s two narrators each constructing a different narrative.
In this one it’s just Malone, from the title. So the thing that sticks out to me about these books is the word I used above “construction” like in other Beckett writing, there’s a clear feeling here that the narrator (and the character) is so highly aware of a writing process and writing project, and there’s moments where he refers immediately back to something he’s written with that knowledge. I know this is no different than almost all first person narrators, but there’s a kind of auto-ficitonal element to this one that feels so immediate. And in the way that so many writers later would imitate and riff off of this form (William Gaddis comes to mind) this feels like a kind of ur-text. And it’s different from say Joyce because I feel like the narrator conscientiously writing his own story (as opposed to telling it) comes through so strongly here. And like other Beckett, this includes him stopping to go to the bathroom.
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt – 3/5 Stars
So this is a book that I got out of interest (as opposed to what?) but I mean not out of my previous connection to the material I do follow Duchess Goldblatt on Twitter, but I’ve never interacted with her, and usually don’t get much out of her postings. (I tend to go for weird jokes more so). But I appreciate the project. So instead, my interest in this book (and the book does reward this) is the story of the creation of the persona, the embedded memoir in this book, and the persistence of the anonymity of the writing
This memoir is pretty raw, and so coming as it does so highly recommended by Benjamn Dreyer and Lyle Lovett is interesting. Those two have been the most fervent supporters and reposters of Duchess Goldblatt, and the book reveals that they’re real life friends now (having met offline after cultivating the friendship online).
So the book talks about the horrible divorce, the potential loss of child custody (or more so the shared custody after near abandonment), the depression, the loss of productivity in work, the potential loss of a job, sharing the spotlight with a brother with much more extreme mental illness (to the point of near erasure of the author’s own mental illness) and lots of other things. So on the one hand, it’s a basic memoir full of memoiry topics. But the addition of the creation of the online persona, a figure who is goofy and sweet and devious and all that adds to that.