O City of Broken Dreams – John Cheever

This is a frenetic short story about the hope and hopelessness of the American Dream.

Written in 1948, it’s the story of Evarts and Alice Molloy who withdraw all their savings to travel to New York after meeting a Broadway producer who expresses an interest in Evarts’ play and says he can make it happen for them. They check into a down-at-heel hotel and begin a frantic series of meetings across New York, ultimately burning their bridges with the original producer and hooking up with another that they meet through the hotel bellboy, Bitsie, and finishing up deciding to move on to LA where they think there might be more hope for them. 

What this superb story captures is the American Dream. On the one hand is the hope – that all Evarts needs to do is write the play and meet the right people and he can make it, and become a star playwright. On the other is the tragedy – they are clearly chasing a most likely hopeless dream of success, and so is everyone else. The producers and agents are just as unrealistic as Evarts, but are cut-throat too, lying to one another and threatening law suits to make things happen. By the end of the story Evarts and Alice are poorer, severed from their old home and unsure of their future, yet they have a naive hope which will drive them on until they make it or are destitute.

The writing is brilliant, a sense of urgency and looming disaster is evident from the first few lines – though you never really know how much Evarts and Alice might lose. And there are excellent, heartbreaking scenes, like the one where Alice sings at a party of producers and actors. They listen intently, enjoying the performance, but then she ends with a fake collapse that had been a key part of the routine in their rural home but appears ridiculous and results in hilarity in suave New York.

A great, sad story.

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and she says ‘hey, how u doing?’

and I smile ‘fine’ into the phone

if she’d Skyped, I’d not have answered

cos then she would have known

that I am lying on the bedroom floor

a starfish on a rug

glass of wine, stinging eyes

desperate for a hug

that I worry I’m not coping

that I feel like throwing up 

that cannot keep up with my work

that I’m frightened when it’s night
I ask her how she’s doing

‘Oh,’ she says, ‘I’m fine

Fine, Holly McNish 

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt

A stark but affecting existential Western about the need for – and struggle to find – meaning.

Eli and Charlie Sisters are, it turns out, pretty notorious mercenaries in nineteenth century mid-West America. They are commissioned to search out an inventor who had somehow created a mix of chemicals that makes gold clear in the bottom of lakes, providing an easy way to get rich in the time of gold-rush.

The plot charts their slow pursuit of the inventor – Warm – as they befriend, meet or kill a host of other people on the way: lawyers, prostitutes, farmers, Native Americans, other cowboys. They eventually catch up with Warm and his friend Morris, but it turns out that, although the invention might be effective, it is also pretty lethal.

The big theme of the book is about finding a meaning in life. It’s narrated by Eli, who is a thoughtful soul stuck in the mercenary business. He largely wants out, to leave the death behind, but this is what he is, what he does. His brother Charlie is less reflective and altogether meaner, and it’s hard for Eli to break away from his brother when in many ways the relationship with his brother in in fact all he has of value or meaning.

The pursuit of gold appears to give meaning to the lives of so many characters, but often it appears to be self-defeating – acquiring gold often results in being robbed or killed, and the chemical agent that can help find gold is itself toxic. Charlie and Eli are brilliantly philosophical about material gain. A number of times they make enough money to retire only to lose it somehow, yet they just live with the loss and move on. Perhaps the point is that the journey and what they do en route is what provides meaning, not the gold, the end, itself?

And what I like about the book too are the little things. Eli is wonderfully conflicted, he has different moods, he is aware that he thinks different things at the same time; his mind is tricky, and real. He is multiple. Despite being murderers you can’t help liking Eli and Charlie and somehow rooting for them, for their success. And there are some excellent scenes – a Western style shoot-out with a nervous but affronted lawyer stands out as a lovely addition.

It drags sometimes, and the lack of substantial women characters in the book – although it may well reflect Eli’s attitudes – feels like a limitation, but nevertheless The Sisters Brothers is an excellent existential Western.

Elmore Leonard – Bandits

Another top-notch caper from Leonard; too good to be true, but a brilliant, brilliant read.

It tells the story of ex-con Jack, now working as an undertaker, who meets a Nun called Lucy. Together with Jack’s co-worker and ex-policeman Leo, they confront and double-cross a leader of the Nicaraguan ‘contras’ who is a ruthless and violent killer stealing a load of cash from American donors to the anti-communist government.

As always, the plot is gripping though at times hard to follow, the characters fun and complex but sometimes a little stereotyped, the dialogue consistently droll and cool and Tarantino-like.

There is a strong theme of ridiculing anti-communist right wingers in the US, but in a way that very nicely never gets too deep into the politics, just skirts around the edges highlighting that the bad guys are on the side of the American administration and Nicaragua’s authoritarianism. Good stuff as always.

Stieg Larsson – The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest

This is an excellent conclusion to the Millennium trilogy, more complex and gripping even than the previous two.

The first two books in the trilogy allude to corruption and duplicity among the authorities but focus on the criminal aspects, on corruption in business and Salander and Blomkvist. This book is much wider in its scope, taking in the many layers of corruption in the police, security services, government and social services, that led to Salander’s horrendous predicament. In terms of Scandi-drama, it’s like reading The Bridge, The Killing and Borgen all rolled into one.

It picks up exactly where the last book left off, with Salander in hospital after trying to kill her father, Zachelenco, and half brother Niedermann, at their farm. It then follows the work of Blomkvist, his sister, Berger, Bulanski and others to uncover the truth in the trial. It’s compulsive reading all the way through, particularly Berger’s move to work at national paper SMP and the trial itself towards the end of the book.

The novel is also more noticeably about the relationship between men, women and power than the others. It opens sections talking about historical female leaders and warriors, has a number of powerful female protagonists like Berger, Modig and Giannia – Blomkvist’s sister. Many of the problems experienced by Salander and others like Berger’s harassment come from ingrained, viscous sexism from the authorities. That said, it’s interesting that for much of the book Salander is not much of a player and in fact it is a man, Blomkvist, who is directing so much that happens.

As always there are a bits in the book that are overblown, not least Blomkvist’s near-perfection and his clever, cool heroes and heroines, but these are small things in what is a big and brilliant book. 

Hanif Kureshi – The Tale of the Turd

The brilliance of this short story is getting us to empathise with a truly embarrassing situation while simultaneously disliking the person in it. 

Told through the voice of a guy who is visiting the parents of his girlfriend for the first time, it tells of his excruciating experience dealing with a turd that won’t go down the toilet. It’s funny and embarrassing and you can sympathise entirely with his predicament.

But at the same time the guy is thoroughly unlikable – the girl is 18, he is 44. She is experimenting with drugs, he’s helping her do it. He, it turns out, preys on young girls like her, effectively grooming them and turning them into addicts whose lives are most likely ruined. That we can sympathise with him is a real mark of Kureshi’s ability.

“I’m crying inside too, you know, but what can I do but stick my hand down the pan, into the pissy water, that’s right, oh dark, dark, dark, and fish around until my fingers sink into the turd, get a muddy grip and yank it from the water. For a moment it seems to come alive, wriggling like a fish.”

Hanif Kureshi, The Tale of the Turd

My Son the Fanatic – Hanif Kureshi

A really powerful short story that shows the lack of mutual understanding that can grow between generations.

It is told in the third person from the point of view of the father Parvez. His son, Ali, has begun to sell his possessions and Parvez quickly realises he is turning to fundamentalist Islam. After working so hard as a taxi driver to provide everything Ali needed for a good life in Britain, Parvez is distraught.

He tries to talk to his son but everything he does makes it worse, showing that Parvez drinks and has struck up a close friendship with a prostitute who he gives lifts to and looks out for at night.

What comes through strongest in this simply written story is the complete lack of understanding between the two. Parvez is a sympathetic guy who just wants his son to take the advantages he is being offered and get on, and cannot comprehend why Ali would give up on any of that. Ali is less sympathetic, but you can see his complete frustration with his father who seems to lack self-awareness and believes in nothing bigger than the day to day of life. 

It ends with a sad scene, where Parvez defends his prostitute friend from the insults of Ali, in the end hitting his son, who replies, “who’s the fanatic now?”.

“At night I dream about my replacement mourner, a woman. She has lost her mother years before and because she is already grieving she just continues attending funerals for a price. Like a wet nurse, the pre-requisite is a state of ‘already grief.'”

Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Claudia Rankine – Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Full of surprise and humour and melancholy, this is a beautiful book that offers insight after insight.

Even to try to characterise what Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is about risks over-simplifying a complex and subtle piece of writing – mis-representing as about this or that. There’s so much more to it than any one thing. But it’s main theme, it seems to me, is how people – who are fundamentally defined by their relation to and perceptions by others – can live in an individualised culture where sharing and emotion are bottled up and replaced by TV and pills. 

This is done through short vignettes, anecdotes and aphorisms about racism, TV, friends, traumas, drugs, movies – modern American life. They are readable and light, but the messages they convey – the ideas they express – are big.

There is no formal structure to her book as far as I can see, but what she often does is introduce a concept through an anecdote or story or two. Then perhaps clarify that concept with reference to a quote – Hegel gets a few mentions in this book. And then she’ll tell more stories or anecdotes to give perspectives on it or to amplify it.

I love the way she starts so many of the vignettes with ‘Or’, using them as ways to explain or bring alive an idea, gently circling it, exploring it from different angles, gradually moving the ideas and the book along. And I love the way it’s hard to see any parts of this in isolation – you could read them as single pages but you get so much more when you read page after page of her gentle insights. A remarkable and rare book.

“This week the indie channel is playing and replaying Spaghetti Westerns. Always someone gets shot or pierced through the heart with an arrow, and just before he dies he says, I am not going to make it? Where? Not going to make it where? On some level maybe the phrase simply means not going to make it into the next day, hour, minute, or perhaps the next second. Occasionally, you can imagine, it means he is not going to make it to Carson City or Texas or somewhere else out west or to Mexico if he is on the run. On another levels always implicit is the sense that it means he is not going to make it to his own death. Perhaps in the back of all our minds is the life expectancy of our generation. Perhaps this expectation lingers there alongside the hours of sleep one should get or the number of times one is meant to chew food – eight hours, twenty chews, seventy-six years. We are all heading there and not to have that birthday is to not to have made it.”

Claudia Rankine, Don’t let me be lonely

 

Daughter of Smoke & Bone – Laini Taylor

This is a mix of a deep fantasy and a love story, making it an interesting read but frustratingly conventional at times.

 The heroin is Karou, a feisty 17-year art student old living in Prague who was in fact raised in another world – Elsewhere – by Brimstone, a chimera who harvests and somehow uses teeth, the source of a mysterious magical power.

 Karou is fluent in over 20 languages, trained in martial arts and is able to travel around the world – and the underworld – at will, thanks to wishes granted by these teeth; something she often does, running ‘errands’ to collect teeth for Brimstone to use, though we don’t know what for exactly.

 It’s a great premise, and the opening 80 or so pages are brilliant for it, not least in her interactions with other humans who view her as a beautiful mystery – he superficial boyfriend Kaz and her friend Zuzana.

 We gradually learn that the chimera are in an ongoing battle in this Elsewhere world with the angels, the Seraphim, who have the power on their side, but not the magic of Brimstone which enables chimera to pass through bodies and occupy new ones when they are destroyed.

All of these ideas and scenes are great – imaginative, evocative, gripping. There’s so much to the fantasy and the world Taylor constructs and I could read that all day long.

 Where there book falls down a little, though, is in the core of the plot – where Karou meets the angel Akiva, first in combat and then again, and they fall in love. There are great things in the relationship – scenes where they fight, revelations about Brimstone, large sections where we and Karou herself learns about her past, about how she came to live half in the human world, half Elsewhere. But ultimately about half the book, perhaps, is focused on their relationship and it’s too much, for me at least.

 It’s a good read, lots of great ideas and imagery, but not quite as strong as it could have been if less time were spent on the love story.

The Girl who Played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

More gripping again than the first, the second in Stieg Larsson’s series is an enjoyable novel of corruption that hones in on the story of its protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

After three murders – of a couple investigating sex trafficking and Salander’s guardian Burjman – she becomes the subject of a major national murder investigation. Blomkvist is one of the few people who don’t believe her guilty, and makes the connection between them all, and battles with the police and criminal gangs to help her. As always, though, Salander saves herself and is the strongest character throughout.

What’s nice about this book is it is really about Salander – how she became who she is, and we meet her father in particular who is deeply involved in trafficking.

The book is obviously pretty unbelievable. It relies on a high degree of coincidence and the unlikely physical and mental abilities of Salander. But at the same time it tackles big subjects like power and corruption, upbringing and agency – and it’s a fantastic read.

The Nightmare Factory, vol. 2 – Thomas Ligotti

The Nightmare Factory is a graphic novel version of four of Thomas Ligotti’s chilling stories, an approach that I think both adds and takes away from their telling.

The four stories are ‘The Gas Station Carnivals,’ ‘The Clown Puppet,’ ‘The Chymist’ and ‘The Sect of the Idiot.’ The strongest of these is the ‘Gas Station Carnivals’, a story I’d read before a couple of times – and had stayed with me – about a man’s *possible* memories of visiting gas stations across the US and finding in the back terrifying shows featuring supernatural creatures.

The graphic style adds to Ligotti’s original short stories by helping them feel more contemporary and giving them a visual flair that helps you to picture some of the most obscure and terrifying parts of the story. The creatures the character (Quisser) sees at the gas stations for example are stranger for seeing them illustrated.

The graphic style does take away a little though, mostly in that Ligotti’s stories are complex and rich with detail, but the comic book necessarily pares it down to a minimum, meaning some of the depth of character or setting, and explanations of the twisting plot, are missing. And part of the appeal of reading horror like Ligotti’s is letting your imagination do the work because so much is left to your mind, and to some extent seeing it illustrated gives you a particular image that you can’t shake afterwards.

Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin 

I can’t say I loved this book, though it’s entertaining, gives insights into a different era and most interestingly illustrates the complexities of power and liberation.

It’s set in 1970s San Francisco, when a new generation of people – and some older – are living footloose and hedonistic lives that were unimaginable to most earlier generations.

There is Mary Ann Singleton, who has just moved to San Francisco; Mona, her friend from back home who has been there a while; Michael, Mona’s gay and promiscuous roommate; Brian, a straight philanderer; Beauchamp, who works where Mary Ann does, and his troubled wife De-De; Norman, an apparently dull but actually odd and perhaps sick guy who Mary Ann befriends; and Anna Madrigal, an older bohemian lady who owns the building, 28 Barbary Lane, that many of the characters live in.

Most noticeable to me about the book, first off, was the style: there is almost no description, nearly all of it is dialogue, and very short, snappy dialogue at that. You learn about the characters almost entirely through what they say. It’s like a play as much as a novel in that sense.

The big theme of the book is liberation, both as a positive and negative force. It’s positive insofar as the characters are living free and experimental lives, doing things for themselves that few others would have dreamed of. San Francisco gives them amazing possibilities for living differently, for creating their own way of being.

But despite their liberation from conventional ways of life, they appear trapped by the new one they have embraced. They are troubled by relationships they are and aren’t having, they end up forcing themselves to do things against their better judgement (one woman pretended she was black for years, using hardcore pills that coloured her skin, in order to get on in the modelling industry), and there’s a lot of sadness that their hopes about how life could be are constantly unmet. 

The great thinker on power – Michel Foucault, who incidentally spent time in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s for precisely the reasons the characters moved there – is quite clear on what’s going on here. He says there are always power relations and discourses in society that define how we live. New generations might liberate themselves from old conventional lifestyles but then new ways of thinking, new conventions, new forms of normality, take their place and despite being different and perhaps better than the old ones, they are still a constraint on people’s lives.

For Foucault we need to develop an ‘art of the self’ where, through reflection and hard work we craft a way of being for ourselves that takes bits of different discourses and become something that as far is possible our own, making us free subjects not just objects of discourse and power relations.

What we see in Tales of the City are a group of people trying – to different degrees – to tread a line and find their own ways of being between the new and old discourses about how to live, sometimes being trammelled by power relations, sometimes finding flashes of freedom.

Walter Mosley – Little Yellow Dog

The eponymous dog belongs to femme fatale Idabell and appears to be the cause of many of the problems in this, the fifth novel in Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series.

It’s set in JFK-era US and deals characteristically with the reality of racism and race relations. Easy is a black private investigator who’s had a hard upbringing, spent time on the street and is now trying to live straight. But his skin colour, and his difficult past, keep getting in the way.

He’s now working as a supervisor in a school overseeing the building’s maintenance, but after the brother of Idabell, one of the teachers, is discovered on the school he quickly gets himself involved in unearthing what is going on. The plot as always thickens inexorably, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing even after you’ve finished the book, and Easy finds himself stuck between the police, gangsters, city officials – and the small dog he ends up looking after – all of whom want him gone.

The plot is good, like his other Easy novels, but the reason I keep reading Mosley is in part the hard boiled style and, more than anything, Mosley’s understanding of racism and poverty, of how the two are intertwined, how they define the way so much in the US works, and of how circumstances can make people do things that they would not otherwise do.