July 2009

belize city
Photo of Belize City by scaturchio used under a Creative Commons license.

Charles Portis, The Dog of the South (Overlook, 1999).
When Ray Midge finds that his wife has run off with his friend in his Grand Torino, he takes the man’s car and drives south after them.  This chase takes him from Little Rock to the British Honduras, now better known as Arkansas, as he searches for answers.  Portis is a comic genius who writes like no one else, this overlooked masterpiece is worth reading wherever you are.  I’ve tagged it under Arkansas because Portis is one of that state’s top writers, and Belize because that’s where Midge ends up.

Here is Wikipedia’s Portis page. Alex T. Moore’s Unofficial Charles Portis Website has an impressive wealth of information.  Vered Kleinberger of Emory University also created a great Portis website.  Scott McLemee appreciates Portis. So does Ed Park, in The Believer. Mark Garvey has an excerpt. Scott McLemee has a couple. Ron Rosenbaum (New York Observer), a big fan, was thrilled. Walter Clemons (Newsweek) says reading it is like being held down and tickled. Patrick Kurp laughed out loud. Benjamin Lytal (New York Sun) says it’s hilarious. Joseph McLellan (Book World) says if it weren’t so darned funny, it would be tragedy. Charles Michaud (Library Journal) calls it a wildly funny book. Roy Blount, Jr., says no one should die without reading it. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (New York Times) liked it, I think. Greg Purcell recommends it. So does Dylan Hicks. CL says you need it. Earlier this year it was optioned. In 2001, Roy Reed interviewed Portis

Buy it at Amazon.com.

opera madrid
Photo by *alfoto used under a Creative Commons license.

Javier Marías, The Man of Feeling (Vintage, 2005).
The narrator of this short novel is an opera singer, a tenor, a native of Madrid, who recounts his dream of the events four years earlier, upon his return to the city to perform. He encounters an odd trio: a Belgian banker, his Spanish wife, herself a native of Madrid, and their paid companion, Dato, and each of the four is a tragic, lonely figure. To describe much of the plot risks evoking melodrama, but Marías, himself a native of Madrid, is too strong and interesting a writer for that. Published in Spain in 1986 as El hombre sentimental, and translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

Google BookSearch gives a preview, and here is another long excerpt. Here is the author’s site, and here is Wikipedia’s page about him. Aida Edemariam (The Guardian) profiles Marías. So do Wyatt Mason (The New Yorker), Christina Patterson (The Independent) and Ilan Stavans (The Nation).  The Complete Review calls it an impressive little work, and provides some excellent links. Penny Hueston (The Age) says Marías has the gift of making what could seem like a banal albeit tragic love triangle read as a gripping tale of the heart. Matthew Kirkpatrick (Bookslut) says this quiet book is remarkable and surprising. Josh Lacey (The Guardian) sees a novel of unusual beauty, insight and imaginative power. Lawrence Venuti (The New York Times Book Review) says Marías is preoccupied with the erotic imagination. Zoe Green (The Observer) calls it a book of contradictions, an unusual mixture of the melancholy with the comic; of tender description with pitiless detail; of lightheaded dreamscape with squalid reality. Steven G. Kellman (Review of Contemporary Fiction) calls it perverse and powerful. Joy Press (Village Voice) says it has a gothic heart. The Washington Times‘ reviewer calls it breathtaking.  Craig Morgan Teicher gobbled it. Essan Dragone sees loves of selfishness. Vendela Vida nominates Marías to be literary ambassador from Spain, but says that this is not one of his best books.  Lawrence Venuti considers the translationThis blog is dedicated to Marias. Paul Ingendaay interviewed him for Bombsite in 2000.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

snow walk in logan circle
Photo of Logan Circle by Joe in DC used under a Creative Commons license.

Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Riverhead, 2007).
Sepha Stephanos is an Ethiopian immigrant who has lived in Washington, D.C., for seventeen years, half his life.  Stephanos runs an unsuccessful convenience store in Logan Circle, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.  Alienated, not just literally, he drifts between worlds: the poor residents and newcomers in Logan Circle, the United States and Ethiopia.  Other characters include Stephanos’ immigrant buddies, an engineer from Kenya and a waiter from the Congo, and a university professor on sabbatical who moves into the neighborhood with her eleven-year-old daughter.  Stephanos grows attached to each of them, and his relationship with the young girl, Naomi, is particularly touching.  Both bookworms, they read Dostoyevsky together in his store.  Mengestu’s novel is achingly well written, moving and evocative.  It was released as Children Of The Revolution in the U.K., where it won the Guardian First Novel Award.

Here’s a brief bio of Mengestu. Bob Thompson (Washington Post) profiles him.  Google BookSearch offers a preview.  NPR has an excerpt, and you can listen to Mengestu read it.  JP posted some favorite passages.  Kathryn Lewis (bookforum) says Mengestu has produced a layered and nuanced account of American life.  Rob Nixon (The New York Times) calls it a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel.  Olivia Laing (The Guardian) calls it quietly accomplished.  Jaime thinks it is a little too subtle. Constance Howes calls it a clear, honest reckoning of life’s baggage.  Marie-Martine Buckens (The Courier) says Mengestu gives us a meditation on the social regression and emotional poverty that enforced exile in a new country brings.  Shannon Luders-Manuel says Mengestu has humility and grandeur.  Dovegreyreader says it’s an exquisitely written book, gentle and sad, great rafts of melancholy.  Jennifer Reese (EW) thinks Mengestu’s control over his material is too tight.  Matthew Schnipper (The Fader) says it tells large stories through little movements.  Bethonie Butler (Washingtonian) likes that Mengestu treats his subjects without judgment.  Jeff Kelly Lowenstein says it renders a rarely-told experience of Ethiopian immigrant life.  Matt Sedlar (DCist) says it details Washington, D.C.’s past and present with loving care and unflinching honesty.  But raych calls it wholly unremarkable.  Naomi calls it depressing and forgettable.  Brian sounds underwhelmed.  Karen R. Davis says it’s a slow, relaxing read.  Abby Jean says it’s much more articulate than her review.  J. Otto Pohl says it’s a very accurate description of the city of Washington DC.  Phil Marsden says it’s engaging throughout. Mary Brodbin (Socialist Review) says it’s gripping in an unexpected way.  Alan Garner describes it as an exercise in loss, isolation, nationhood and cultural identity.  Stefania likes the unusual and sad portrait of Washington, D.C.  Mengestu was interviewed by Tadias magazine.  Watch Mengestu read from the novel (at — sniff — Cody’s Books in Berkeley) and discuss it.  Read or listen to Tavis Smiley interview Mengestu on PBS.  Here’s some love for Logan Circle.

Buy it at Amazon.com.