Robert’s Raves & Reviews #1 (Books & Ebooks)

Like my Robert’s Roundup series, I want to write a regular series about cool book reviews I’ve been finding. On occasion I will post my own reviews, but most of the column will be be links to reviews by other people.

Amazon has another Kindle Unlimited 2 month trial offer. From now on Kindle titles won’t receive hyperlinks, but I’ll include website links for authors/reviewers. FYI: “KU” will indicate Kindle Unlimited ebook.

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“The only proper way to read the fiction of Kathryn Davis is in a state of happy, profound, and irreducible uncertainty. Here is the place where the membrane between the mundane and the mystical becomes so thin as to be transparent. No answers will be supplied, and the metaphors will bend your imagination to its breaking point.” (Laura Miller (Twitter) on the fiction of Kathryn Davis. (author website). Specifically she recommends starting out with Thin Place which she read with “baffled wonder”. (Aside, it’s always a delight to come across Miller’s columns on Salon, Slate, etc.).

About Susan Choi‘s novel Trust Exercise, Laura Miller writes, Each of the novel’s three parts (the third is a relatively short coda) concerns a woman who feels betrayed, her trust violated—but the locus of that betrayal, the truly guilty party, looks different to the reader than it does to the women themselves. The first time around, though, how can the reader know any better? Like the unanalyzed souls Karen pities for their lack of self-knowledge, the reader of Sarah’s “novel” is blind. What choice is there but to fall into her version of what happened? And what choice can there be, once we’ve heard another, if equally blinkered, version, than to recognize just how easily trust can be misplaced or abused—often right under our noses, and with nobody any the wiser? [FUN FACT: Susan Choi grew up in Houston, and according to Miller, attended HSPVA]

Lord, I can never keep up with M.L. Orthofer‘s blog or book reviews, but I’ll be quoting a number of the reviews — with the caveat that I prefer to cover US -born authors. Still it’s nice browsing through the index. It’s nice seeing his reviews of prize-winners and books with erotic themes. Oh, so much!

I’m happy to discover the great book review section of Cleaver Magazine. I’ll be digging through their archives over the weeks.

YOU’LL ENJOY IT WHEN YOU GET THERE The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor: (review by Claire Rudy Foster). QUOTE:  In the States, where “sympathetic” characters are considered evocative and powerful, where we’re taught to see ourselves in every paragraph and written across every landscape, this type of description will not do. And yet, Taylor’s fiction pushes us beyond the boundaries of ourselves; if anything, she’s doing the reader a favor. Without the distraction of the ego, the chronic me me me that American fiction encourages through its unrelenting “relatability,” the story is stripped bare. It’s telling that, in most of these stories, the main characters hide under awnings and umbrellas, holding a book—not to read, but as a barrier. A means of escape.

From Foster, here’s a nice piece about why kinky writing is also tight writing: Short-short fiction is not about being clever. It is about the essential parts of story. The bones. The steel rods and rings. The skin that goes white with tension. Tolerating that kind of discomfort takes practice, yes, but it is exhilarating. It is a pleasure. The closer I draw the words around me, the more I feel my power. I feel everything until I am numb. Then, I can squeeze my way into the story. It makes a shape that is tight, and smooth, and takes your breath away. (Wow, apparently has a semi-regular column, (K)ink: Writing While Deviant — i.e., ” a series about how looking at the world through the lens of an alternative sexual orientation influences the modes and strategies with which one approaches one’s creative work. “

TYPEWRITERS, BOMBS, JELLYFISH: ESSAYS by Tom McCarthy (reviewed by William Morris) This collection itself is “a complex, spring-like structure” filled with literary and cultural references that recur throughout, often becoming “embedded one within the other.” How else to explain McCarthy’s transitions between Thomas Pynchon and MC Hammer, Don DeLillo and Zinedine Zidane? And stretched throughout the book, an almost constant stream of Mallarmé. There are essays on the weather in London, Kafka’s letters, David Lynch, and J.G. Ballard, making Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish an unceasingly eclectic collection. (Morris also recommends the McCarthy novel Satin Island). QUOTE: For writers in the nouveau roman style, and for McCarthy, reality is the collision of the will and the world. Toussaint’s heroes enact their will through refusal. They reject the tedium of inauthentic daily life. “The only escape route,” McCarthy writes, “from this [present moment], from its simultaneity, its loops and repetitions, would be violence.” The “irremediably inauthentic” must be punctured with violence to escape life’s ennui.

TRYSTING by Emmanuelle Pagano (reviewed by Rachel Taube).
Though they lose some nuances of expression and must forfeit some of the clarity of the French, Higgins and Lewis successfully reimagine the poetry and intensity of the original…. At the same time, because each piece is in the first person, the narrators begin to blur together from one story to the next. The female point of view in one story bleeds into the next. The narrator’s gender is rarely clear, so that we don’t know if the relationships are heterosexual or homosexual or meant to represent something else. This effect seems intentional, and as I got farther into the book, I began to see it as an exercise in exploring queerness. We can’t identify a gender, and it doesn’t matter. Interestingly, though, this doesn’t quite align with the reading of the book in its original French. In French, gender is more visible in the language.

TROMPE L’OEIL by Nancy Reisman (reviewed by Michelle Fost) Reisman can sound like Virginia Woolf, but her experimentation also places her in the company of contemporary film directors like Terence Malick and Richard Linklater. If she has written a love letter to cinema, it’s not a traditional or straightforward letter. I don’t think anyone in the Murphy family ever so much as steps a foot in a movie theater in the many decades that we follow them. We hear about great painters, but no filmmakers, no directors, no actors. Instead, we can understand the Murphy family itself as a stand-in for a film being made. Moments accumulate to form their story, and we read of these moments sequentially.

White Dancing Elephants. Stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar. (Reviewed by K.C. Mead-Brewer). Gods, myths, stories within stories—Bhuvaneswar’s quiet, magical real style reveals a beauty that is constant and unflinching, found even in the face of D/death. Throughout this collection, her fascination with Indian myths and poetic traditions is folded into the everyday lives of her characters. In many ways, these stories almost read like modern-day fairytales—timely and timeless, magical even as they haunt. See also the reviews of an Alfred Doblin story collection and Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt. ( In Aidt’s writing, we’re made to see the ugliness in love and the beauty in monsters. We’re called to empathize with those we would rather discard and deny. We’re called to openness and curiosity. Don’t look away, she seems to say. Don’t look away, this is important. This is where it gets good).

Nonfiction/Special Interest

Texas Stuff

” Washington’s subtle, dynamic and flexible stories play out across the city’s sprawling and multiethnic neighborhoods. His characters move through streets named so often — Richmond and Waugh, Rusk and Fairview — that they come to have talismanic power, like the street names in Springsteen songs. ” Dwight Garner reviews Bryan Washington’s Lot (author site) Washington is a Houston author, and by the way, I know all of these neighborhoods very well. Here’s an interview on Lone Star. Asked to name his fave short story writers, he said, “Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Victor Lodato, Xuan Juliana Wang, Jamel Brinkley, Yukiko Motoya, Osama Alomar, Amelia Gray, ZZ Packer, Sandra Cisneros, Alejandro Zambra, Ha Jin, and Patricia Engel are doing work that I admire deeply. ” (A nice bunch of unfamiliar names!)

Public Domain

Book Review Digests. For the past two years I have been volunteering to proof various annual editions of Book Review Digest for Project Gutenberg. These volumes are incredible. As I write this post, only two volumes have been released. I can promise you there are about 15 more volumes still being worked on (I’ve worked on about half of them). It conveys firsthand what kinds of books were being released and talked about. Most of the “reviews” are 1-4 sentences long, but good enough to get a sense of whether a book is worth reading. It’s also clear that book reviewing standards in the 1900s and 1910s were very high (I even recognized some of the reviewer’s names. One was F.M. Ford!) To my astonishment, about half of the literary books have bio pages on wikipedia or elsewhere, but a surprising number of books reviewed from that time period have never been digitalized. For example, because PG already has 89 ebooks by Henry James, you’d assume that it’s pretty complete. Yet one of the Book Review Digests revealed two other works by James which still haven’t been digitalized (travel books, I think). Here for example is every page of the 1917 edition on a single HTML page (long!) I would guess 80-90% of these books haven’t been digitalized except in image form. For this edition, links to PG ebooks were included, making it even more useful. Some day, these reviews will be parsed and appear on the download page and reveal more masterpieces. The good news is that the 1921 edition is currently being processed by PG and that it’s only a matter of time before it gets to the 1923 scans. From now on, when I stumble upon an interesting review which has been digitalized, I’ll mention it on this section of the reviews.

Eddy: A novel of To-day . By Clarence Louis Cullen (bio) . Tells of the regeneration of an immoral woman by a strong, loyal-hearted daughter who after finishing school goes to live in her mother’s home. “In spite of vagaries of diction Mr. Cullen has written a really good novel. It scores a triumph in that, despite its subject, it leaves a clean and wholesome impression.” + – N. Y. Times. 15: 213. Ap. 16, ’10. 300w.

Cavanagh–forest ranger; a romance of the mountain west by Hamlin Garland. This story, one of the best things Mr. Garland has ever done, portrays the passing of the old west–the west of the miner, the cattle man, the wolf and the eagle–and the establishment of the dominion which compels the ranger to transfer his allegiance to Uncle Sam and his conservation policies. The old order is symbolized by a coarse, slovenly, boarding-house keeper in a “little fly-bit cow town,” under whose uncouth, even repulsive exterior can often be detected a strain of fairness and honesty; and the new dominion finds its parallel in the woman’s daughter, who, after ten years of training in the east, returns to her mother, and, obnoxious as the process is, puts filth and dirt to route and institutes a cleanly régime. In Cavanagh, the hero, we find a faithful portrayal of the fight which the strong young men of the Forest service are called upon to put up against rangers opposed to law and innovations. It is an interesting story, but with a certain vitality, much realistic detail, and often beauty of line and color.” Margaret Sherwood. The Atlantic, 1910., (Garland later won the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir, Daughter of the Middle Border).

Ashton Hilliers Master-girl: a romance. (1910) Aha, it’s a pseudonym for British zoologist Henry Marriage Wallis.A story of prehistoric times with a young savage for a hero who fares forth to appropriate a wife from a neighboring tribe and is generously blessed by the gods of his Sun-*men race. The master girl his wife, “stands a primitive human document,” a heroic specimen of cave woman thru whose elemental passions gleams something of the fine unselfishness and loyalty of her later generations. The author draws vivid pictures of the fight these people made for existence against the ravages of beasts, enemies and cold.The story furnishes an argument in favor of woman’s rights, and its archeology is unimpeachable.” A. L. A. Bkl. 7: 36. S. ’10.

“It is an entertaining tale, written with a good deal of imaginative power, and held in its descriptions fairly close to the accepted scientific accounts of the way in which the cave men are supposed to have lived.” N. Y. Times. 15: 247. Ap. 30, ’10. 210w.

A Public Domain Mystery

To my astonishment, I discovered a 1910 praised novel, Odd Man by a certain Arnold Holcombe, for which there is practically no information! (and no scans!)

A story of the petty persecutions and insolence which some villagers heap upon a peculiar, hermit-like man who dwells in their midst. “The odd man is a village recluse, half gipsy, half student–a carpenter when he chooses to work–who lives alone in a ramshackle cottage on a patch of land much coveted by speculators when the village becomes a rising suburb.” (Sat. R.)

“The author’s chief fault is that he overaccentuates. The book has unusual originality, its thoughts are clearly put, and it is worth reading. If it has fallen short of its intention, it is, nevertheless, a well-constructed bit of fiction.”- N. Y. Times. 14: 806. D. 18. ’09. 200w.

This certainly sounds worth investigating. A clue is found on an Italian book page which lists Holcombe as a pseudonym for Arnold Golsworthy (1865-1939). Here’s a long description of this author but note that this is a rare books site. Apparently he came from a London literary background, published a few mysteries and did a lot of random things. Hathiway Trust has a few things and Google Books has 2 things.

General Literary Essays

My dirty secret is that Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale is one of the favorite novels — and one of the first I ever read on an ebook reader. Later, I read the Riceyman Steps (also good, but not great) and How to Live on 24 Hours a Day . I was delighted to discover an essay by one of my favorite essayists Wendy Lesser has written about Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale (in response to Virginia Woolf’s castigating essay about his fiction).
Yet Woolf is absolutely wrong about the nature of the excess information. The part of the book that is about rents and houses is all fascinating, as are the parts about stenography (a fledgling career for young women), newspaper advertising, the travails of lodging-house management, and the general ugliness of life in the industrial Five Towns, the famous Staffordshire Potteries where Bennett set so many of his novels. Occasionally in ”Hilda Lessways” and much more often in ”Clayhanger,” Arnold Bennett writes marvelously on the stuff of life. He makes you understand what it must have been like to sit at a Victorian deathbed, to give in to an autocratic father, to work in a print shop, to belong to a local political club and to live out one’s time in a smoky little provincial town, longing all the while for a cleaner, larger, more satisfying existence. When he’s in top form, Bennett manages to suggest how all these material things help to mold, defeat or in some cases enrich the individual soul or spirit — what Woolf, I imagine, would call character.

(Lesser runs the great Threepenny Review but also been blogging about the nonliterary arts. I’ve loved two books by her: Why I read and Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering (which I got discounted on ebook).

Simon Heffer wrote a similar pro-Bennett/anti-Woolf essay.

Christian Lorentzen’s Like This or Die, a long thing .

In some ways, mainstream book coverage is coming down from its historically lofty perch to join the rest of arts coverage, catering less to the intelligentsia and more to the casual reader, who may not be interested in literary fiction or nonfiction. With so much to watch and read and listen to—and so many people chiming in on what to watch and read and listen to—it’s no surprise readers are hungering for a trusted source who can point them in the direction of books tailored to their interests. And those same readers may be looking for the kind of full-court, blogosphere press typically reserved for watercooler shows like Sharp Objects and meme machines like A Star Is Born.

Here a consumerist vision of reading is presented as a form of anti-­elitism. The quaint use of “intelligentsia” suggests a suspect class of self-regarding intellectuals with an echo of Cold War red-baiting. And then a fantastic fictional character: the casual reader who disdains literary books but is eager for, say, the New York Times to tell her which nonliterary books to read when she isn’t busy watching HBO or listening to podcasts. And what does “full-court, blogosphere press” describe but hastily written, barely edited, cheap, and utterly disposable online jetsam? Such is the nature of the new “books coverage.” I was aware of the trend. Two months before Eichner’s story ran, my contract to review books at New York magazine was dropped. I had been told that although its books coverage would be expanding, what I did—book reviews—had “little value.”

Liking Books is Not a Personality. by Hannah MacGregor. Ouch, this is a good long historical look at how book collecting has changed, but ultimately, I don’t like the essay because it doesn’t recommend any books!

I just wanted to rave about the Novel: A Survival Skill (The Literary Agenda) by Tim Parks. (author website).

Our Personal Libraries: A symposium. by Richard Brookhiser. Kind of a puff piece even for National Review, but at least it mentions titles.

Where to Begin by Michael Overa. (an author talks about first lines).

Ron Rosenbaum wrote a compelling historical piece about the travails of the Munich Post during Hitler’s rise. Hitler’s clownish behavior threw his enemies offguard, and how lying became “normalized.”

Hitler’s method was to lie until he got what he wanted, by which point it was too late. At first, he pledged no territorial demands. Then he quietly rolled his tanks into the Rhineland. He had no designs on Czechoslovakia — just the Sudetenland, because so many of its German-born citizens were begging him to help shelter them from persecution. But soon came the absorption of the rest of Czechoslovakia. After Czechoslovakia, he’d be satisfied. Europe could return to normal. Lie! There is, of course, no comparison with Trump in terms of scale. His biggest policy decisions so far have been to name reprehensible figures to various cabinet posts and to enact dreadful executive orders. But this, too, is a form of destruction. While marchers and the courts have put up a fight after the Muslim ban, each new act, each new lie, accepted by default, seems less outrageous. Let’s call it what it is: defining mendacity down.

Rosenbaum has written Explaining Hitler and more interestingly, the Shakespeare Wars. Wow, I just realized that I’ve already read several of his New Yorker pieces and his piece about ditching grad school to become a literary journalist.

Dan Green published a 80+ page PDF about experimental fiction. He has several ebook compilations of his essays. I used to read his blogs a while back. I’ll be catching up on his older book reviews, and I’ll do a quick review of some of his literary criticism on Amazon. (most is available under KU).

As it happens, Green wrote a long book review essay about Jonathan Baumbach who died recently (NYT obituary). About Baumbach’s most lauded work, Green writes, “ Finally the truest subject of Chez Charlotte and Emily is the marriage of Joshua and Genevieve, but unlike Baumbach’s other, later examinations of marital discord and romantic incompetence, this novel is able to realize the subject with the kind of formal ingenuity that fully confirms Baumbach’s reputation as an experimental writer whose efforts contributed to an enlargement of the conceptual possibilities available to adventurous writers. “ About his 2004 novel B, Green writes, “B is the Baumbach protagonist most transparently a stand-in for the author, so we should of course respect the metafictional distance B’s lowering of the “metaphorical disguise” paradoxically imposes, but B is finally such a familiar figure in Baumbach’s work, resembling so many of the other apparent surrogates in behavior and attitude, while the circumstances and events recounted in B so often echo the particulars found across Baumbach’s fiction, that the self-reflexive references to the protagonist’s vocation become more the essentially realistic details underpinning a work that itself never strays too far from its own kind of episodic realism. [Dzanc Books is selling some of Baumbach’s works as ebooks, Amazingly, there’s been almost no reader reviews on, which just goes to show you….]







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