I hadn’t heard of Beryl Markham until a few weeks ago, when her name showed up in an article in conjunction with Hemingway, who was apparently a fan. Her memoir, West with the Night, would have certainly been of topical interest to Papa Hemingway, but the prose styling is also squarely in that mode that has been defined by his work. Markham writes with a directness that is not softened by the touches of aristocracy or privilege that are present in the work. There is little obfuscation or posturing -the only aspect of her writing that might be considered an act of narrative self-preservation is her tendency toward personal understatement. Markham herself is sometimes less revealed than a contemporary reader might wish, but the strength of the other characters populating her life make up for that.
While Markham’s prose lacks ostentation and extravagance as a rule, there is a certain kind of Colonial philosophical authority that grates a bit, especially within our contemporary world of postcolonial theory. The romantic attribution of racial character is much more liberal and evolved than that of her contemporaries, but it still can cause a wince or two. Notably, this sort of thing only really occurs outside of Markham’s personal narrative accounts, and is perhaps best understood as her attempts to ape the conventions of serious men writers, resulting in both the aesthetically weakest and the most culturally and morally problematic writing in the book. Narrative episodes lack these problems almost entirely.
And when Markham is just telling the stories that comprise her life, this book kicks. This is a woman who hunted boar with grown native men as a small girl, killing a leopard to save her beloved and ambitious dog, who bred and trained racehorses, who flew a small bush plane in colonial Africa well before the second world war. The book opens with her delivering an oxygen tank to a sick miner and then sitting with another man dying of malaria, confronting her own irrational phobias regarding g the sickness of others, and after this episode, the story begins to unfold in a rough chronology. Markham is a creature set at a remove, both in her literal human isolation and in her narrative position. This does not prevent incredible scenes from being told with such a sense of involvement and urgency that the book down. West with the Night is another one of those happy intermeshings of lyrical prose chops and amazing events. While the pacing and rhythm of her stories sometimes feel incomplete, the stories themselves are enthralling.
Sarah Hepola’s memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is probably the best memoir I read in 2016. It’s not only exceptionally well-written, it’s brutally self-honest and open in a way that is sometimes unflattering but never sinks to the kind of misery-porn wallowing that makes addiction memoirs such a mixed bag. The self-reflexion and self-condemnation are firmly rooted in reality and don’t seek any end other than the narrative itself.
It’s a long-reaching memoir, a directed autobiography. Hepola’s relationship with alcohol is both the narrative focus and the frame of this story, but this doesn’t feel like much of an external imposition on account of the major role that drinking (and selectively, temporarily not drinking) plays throughout her entire life. The voice is conversational and confessional, refraining from any linguistic backflipping, but this restraint serves to emphasize the thoughtful and deliberate simplicity of Hepola’s communication, her skill displayed well at low wattage. It’s easy and enjoyable to read, in spite of the sometimes difficult subject matter.
A well-framed and well-executed memoir is almost always worth reading. There’s certainly no shortage of books detailing some aspect of somebody’s lived experience, but they are far too often either well-written fluff that teeters toward self importance or a fascinating story that’s told adequately at best. It’s nice to not have to settle. This book is up there with Wolff and the like.
Lorrie Moore is good at writing short stories. This surprises no one, I assume. I had read one or two of her stories in anthologies, but never took the time to sit down with an entire book. Some short story writers seem to come across better in small doses, but many of the best (Carver, Denis Johnson, and Thom Jones spring to my mind) seem to offer the most to the reader when their collections are read all at once. There’s some kind of cumulative effect, a thing that no doubt relates to thematic or narrative connections present within a collection, but which owes even more to the experience of spending more time within that writer’s own aesthetic universe, familiarizing oneself with a certain pacing or sense of humor or dramatic sentimentality, or whatever specific intangible it may be. Moore is definitely included here. I found myself enjoying this book more and more as I kept reading, and I don’t think it was because the stories themselves were getting better -I was getting better at reading them.
These stories are not often particularly engaging if read strictly on the level of plot, although there are certain exceptions to this. They are engaging mostly out of their wildly different and always enjoyable senses of voice. There are all kinds of people in Birds of America and they all have different ways of getting their identities out there. Even characters who might seem superficially similar when viewed from a strictly plot-looking synopsis cut markedly different lines in prose.
While the characters who inhabit this book each inform their stories with variance in a free indirect narrative sort of thing, there is something distinctly universal to the author in the descriptive prose, a way with metaphor and simile that is very hard to define, and is probably the single most important factor in the quality of Moore’s prose. She has a way of writing something novel that communicates an idea as effectively and as universally as a cliche would. I still can’t figure out the exact mechanics, or any kind of worthwhile definition, but, damn. It’s impressive both when you notice it and when you don’t.
Recommendation: Read it! Don’t sell yourself short by reading her work in isolation.
I still have not read any of the Russian behemoths, but my experiences with the novellas of Tolstoy and now Dostoyevsky are making that a rather untenable position. The Gambler is as good a short novel as any, a masterclass in the writing of scenes and in the propulsion of plot. While certain stylistic anachronisms -the heavy use of cliffhanger chapter endings and exclamation marks, for example- read a bit badly, the book itself is a pleasure. The narrator isn’t fully “unreliable” in the modern sense of the trope, but his narrative is incomplete, seeming to lack certain unflattering details.
The Gambler also deserves high raise for its depiction of the act of gambling itself. Dostoyevsky was a compulsive player, and we even owe the existence of this book itself to one of his gambling debts, so his way of describing the play, the emotions and motivations behind it -it all rings very true. But to compliment his scenes of gaming as mere descriptive fidelity would be to far miss their value -the reader is powerfully drawn in by both the narrative and the way in which that narrative is accounted. Suspense is never used cheaply, and there is a compelling sense of urgency and immediacy in the reading which mirrors the frenetic need for play being depicted. And the strict absence of any superficial moralizing makes the moral and philosophical considerations here stand more proudly upright.
Whenever I find myself in the position of reviewing some part of the literary canon, I feel limited in what I might say. These reading logs are short and superficial by design -I can’t say anything in this medium that has not already been said many times about Dostoyevsky’s ability with prose. And, having read little else of his, I can’t make this a comparative review. The Gambler was a wonderful introduction, and I eagerly anticipate reading more.
I recently came across an editor and writer who is in the process of putting together an anthology that I find particularly interesting. Flooded will deal specifically with brain injury and concussions, a collection borne out of project runner Victoria Griffin’s own painful experiences. While I have no direct involvement in the project, I plan to submit to the anthology and I plan to support its Kickstarter when that goes live in a few months.
If this project is of interest to you, Victoria is collecting the emails of interested parties. Get involved and support independent publishing and independent writers!
Another piece of the canon that I’m just now getting to. Still not sure how I made it through my English undergrad without reading this. I guess professors are just sick of teaching it. Oh Well. Glad I’ve rectified my mistake.
I’m struck by how similar this reading experience was to my first reading of Moby-Dick in 2014. While there are some thematic similarities, (an oral storyteller waxing eloquent about his adventures on an aquatic vessel, seeking a legendary entity that takes on a mythological significance) they both resonated especially on the level of their respective influence. It’s impossible to read Heart of Darkness in a vacuum. So much of 20th/21st century art and storytelling has used either the ideas or the expression of Conrad’s work. As I read, I found myself remembering everything from contemporary literary fiction to Loony Toons. This novel has seeped so deeply into the collective unconsciousness that the entire narrative arc, the environmental foreboding, the prose stylings, and specific turns of phrase have become archetypal.
None of this diminishes the reading -it merely alters it. There is a reason this thing is a mainstay in academia. It’s perfectly paced, (what the hell happened to good pacing, anyhow?) memorable, and powerful in its language. There’s not much else to say. It clearly deserves its acclaim.
Recommendation: Read it if you haven’t. Read it again if it’s been awhile.
Edward St. Aubyn’s 1998 novel rather recently got its U.S. release. I bought this book in Powell’s last year and just now got around to it. I have not read his much more well-known Patrick Melrose novels, but after reading On the Edge, I intend to.
This book is a very British lampooning of the excesses of the American New Age, the ruthlessly capitalistic California world of gurus, the fetishization of Native American spirituality, and so forth. Not to say that St. Aubyn is picking on the rich-idiot hippies exclusively -everyone and everything that shows up in this book will have some kind of clever cutting pointed at it if it sticks around long enough. And there are so, so many characters -it takes most of the first half of the book just to introduce everyone… second generation seekers, erotically obsessed beta-male investment bankers, French linguistic philosophers having bad peyote trips, the idle rich and their attendant gurus.
While I would have been more than satisfied with the book without this particular virtue, I was seriously impressed by the way it walked the line of savage mockery and genuine compassion. These new-age seekers aren’t all bad, and the things they have been hurt by are real, and their pain is real. Even challenging characters are often presented to the reader in painfully objective truth, but in such a way as to explain their actions as a coming from their own unique damages. Their dysfunction isn’t excused, but it’s contextualized in such a way as to present them as more than a two dimensional cut-out asshole. This is the first book I’ve ever read that reconciles such hilariously dark and sardonic observations of it’s characters with such a degree of compassion and legitimate happiness. Had you described the workings of this novel to me, I would have been incredibly dubious, but St. Aubyn manages to avoid the saccharine and the banal while still conveying a sense of peace and happiness among broken people working within a bullshit ideology. Damn.
Recommendation: Read it! This is a fantastic book and I can recommend it unreservedly.