Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Europe Central, Doris Lessing binge, William Taylor Hookin' Me Up (almost)

I finished the considerable thickness that is Europe Central a month or so ago. I have to say that this was one of the most difficult books for me to get any traction with that i've ever read, and i very nearly put it down. It was literally just a day or two after a threatening love-letter to EC that we finally found some common ground where we could have an exchange of ideas. But that common ground turned out to be a verdant valley indeed, and the price of getting there was worth it. I will criticize the unapproachable parts: they weren't rewarding. With some difficult books, the difficult parts themselves are rewarding: you have an "aha!" or "ooh!" at the end of the struggle. I felt that the difficult portions of EC were more punative or hazing: you have to endure this unpleasant thing in order to get to the good parts. And the unpleasant things were unpleasant indeed: abstract-yet-first-person narrators, reams of thickly-veiled allusions to historical events which this reader didn't have the education to begin to know wtf he was talking about, entire chapters of pith narrated only as reflections of specific passages of classical music. Seriously. Ordinarily i have a pretty low tolerance for literature: there are so many good books out there, that i don't feel any compunction to continue reading a book just because i've started it: i need to be enjoying it. But i've read another work by Vollmann, The Royal Family, and have a very high regard for his prose.

Europe Central is historical fiction taking place in Germany and the Soviet Union spanning about 1928 to 1960, with most of the attention during WWII. It picks out a handful of real historical figures and does a fantastic job of portraying them as real people set in a real war. The passage which has stuck with me most vividly is that of an upper-middle-class german woman who's upper-middle-class, respectable husband is home on a brief leave from the polish front, and as just a part of a marital argument she confronts him with raping polish women: "everyone knows what you men are doing out there". This brought home to me the extreme warping nature of war: middle class men like myself or perhaps yourself become (or became, if it helps make it real) literal rapists.

.. which makes an unexpected segue to Doris Lessing's The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five (as narrated by the chroniclers of Zone Three), in which Lessing presents one of the most mature and credible portrayals of an adult relationship i've ever read, in which a forced marriage between the queen of an enlightened territory (imagine a Waldorf school the size of northern california) and the king of a brutal one (qv "sparta") opens with his immediately raping her and closes with a portrait of real intimacy between the two, and an entirely convincing evolution from one point to the other. Technically Science-Fiction, the book is really about men and women, their relationships, and the realtionships of couples to the rest of society. despite having the world's dullest, most reader-unfriendly title ever, it's quite good. I'm stoked to have discovered another good author to read. What made me decide that D.L. might be a good writer was her famous reaction to learning she'd won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature: "oh, christ." If you haven't seen it, it's worth looking up.

Mykle was surprised to learn that i started my Lessing-reading with The Marriages and told me that some of her other works were much more approachable, especially Winter In July. Fortunately i'd bought up every used Lessing they had in Dog-Eared Books in SF, and that included Winter In July, so i picked that eagerly up next, and Mykle was right. Winter In July is a masterpiece of human portraiture, short stories set in South Africa in the years before and after WWII. It has the tension and insight into social stratification of Flannery O'Connor but while O'Connor's humour is greater, Lessing's characters have more complex relationships to each other. Absolutely read this book if you haven't.

Finally i had an awesome personal event center around a book a couple weeks ago. I was in one of my favorite bars, which has a new bartendress whom i imagined i shared a certain affinity with, and one fine sunday afternoon had resolved to try to make a date with her. I know that hitting on bartenders is pretty much the tackiest thing under the sun, but .. well, i guess there's no but. I aimed to do it. So we were having a great chat as usual, and she knows i'm a reader (i read parts of all three of the above while chatting with her) and suddenly asks "hey! do you like poetry?" - which, with very, very few exceptions, i don't: poetry gives me a dull headache. John Donne and William Taylor jr are pretty much the only poets i read with gusto. So i was in a tough place: i wanted to have a shared interest with her, but i didn't want to have to read some awful poetry. So i philandered with "well.. i like some poetry", and she dashed off into the back and returned with a thickish book and passed it over to my cringing hands with "well check this out". .. And it turned out to be Bill Taylor's Words for Songs Never Written ! I have been meaning to get a copy since it came out, it's a book of compelling physical and poetic beauty, as Bill's work is absolutely top notch. He writes mostly about street life in SF's Tenderloin district, and portrays and evokes beauty in places where i can only sense a small rumor of it. Prostitutes, the lonely, and bartenders make frequent appearances, but so does non-ironic commentary on the loss of what i personally have loved the USA for. you'll have to read the poems to find out. Anyhow, so i said "hey! do you know Bill?" and she: "no, do you?" and thus i was able to wake-board a little bit on the power of Bill's charm and my coolness of knowing him. She read a couple poems out loud, i read half the book to myself, and as i was leaving i wrote my info on the receipt (dog-eared, again) which was still inside the book and gave it back to her with "my number's in the book if you ever want to hang out". The appropriateness here sort of demanded it. Naturally and sensibly, she of course demurred, citing just getting out of a long relationship, but she did seem excited to have a phone number in the book. So, thank you, Bill ! (as a post-script, the failed hitting-upon doesn't seem to have soured the bartender/client thing, and we're still jawing on sunday afternoons)

As another final status-update,
in bed i'm re-reading Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers, whom i love. The Diaries of Jane Somers, also by Lessing is being read from the throne at the rate of about two pages per day, and the book in the backpack, which is always the main book, is currently Teatro Grottesco, by the master of contemporary existential horror, Thomas Ligotti. - Which reminds me, i am also working very slowly on a short story of my own, a horror vignette in the Lovecraft mythos, set in sinister San Bernadino, California. I'm at the point where i can just barely see the entire plot arc, and should "soon" have the first draft done.