10:04 by Ben Lerner

Writing: 5+/5 Plot: 2.5/5 Characters: 4/5

A literary tour-de-force — fascinating, though not necessarily enjoyable, to read. Beautifully written with intriguing sub-stories and descriptive prose (social, internal and external) to rival the best. It’s very difficult to describe what it is “about.” It feels like a loosely disguised description of portions of the author’s own life, complete with self-referential discussions of selling the idea of the book to the publishers, the art scene in New York, relationships and vignettes on various inspirations that resulted in “him.” Lerner explores the boundary between fiction and non-fiction and the fact that there is no such thing as something which is fully one or the other.

The writing is the real star of the show — this was one of those books that I had to read slowly so as not to miss any of the insights or the brilliant prose. Lots of stream of consciousness, but far more coherent than Joyce or Pynchon. As individual sentences went off on tangents and lasted longer than any sentence has a right to, I found myself actually caring about what would be at the end (of the sentence). Plenty of sharp, Tom Wolfe-style social commentary, though less acerbic and more focussed inward than outward on others. A more modern and neurotic version of Proust. I had to read this book in stages — it was absolutely worth reading but definitely a lot of work.

I tried to find some of my favorite lines but it was a bit difficult to find lines that were good out of context. My favorite was a description of the moment Lerner knew he wanted to be a poet. It was while listening to Ronald Reagan’s post Challenger disaster speech. In the speech, Reagan quoted from an inspiring poem written by young flyer a few weeks before his death. When Lerner researches this later he finds that the poem was actually cobbled together from stolen bits of other poems in what he calls “a kind of palimpsestic plagiarism.” I just love that phrase.

A few of other good lines:

“She chose you for your deficiencies, not in spite of them, a new kind of mating strategy for millennial women whose priority is keeping the more disastrous fathers away, not establishing a nuclear family.”

“Art has to offer something other than stylized despair.”

“…not to mention a checkout system of radical, willful inefficiency.”

“…but I could dodge or dampen that contradiction via my hatred of Brooklyn’s boutique biopolitics, in which spending obscene sums and endless hours on stylized food preparation somehow enabled the conflation of self-care and political radicalism.”

“Most desire was imitative desire.”
Also, an astonishing number of words that were new to me:
nosological — the branch of medical science dealing with the classification of diseases.
craquelure — a network of fine cracks in the paint or varnish of a painting.
prosody — the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry.
poeisis — from ancient greek: the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.
chenopod — russian thistle, waterhemp, or pigweed
pareidolia —psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists.
lachrimal — something to do with tear or crying as in a “lachrimal event”

City of Secrets by Victoria Thompson

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkeley Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Nov. 6, 2018.

Writing: 3 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

A thoroughly enjoyable historical mystery by the author of the Gaslight cozy mystery series. The second in the Counterfeit Lady series (I seem to have missed the first), this series centers on Elizabeth Miles, a “reformed” grifter who is making her way in New York polite society in the 1920s. In this episode, she is moved to help a new friend who was twice widowed and found herself penniless — her second husband having managed to go through all of her money as well as his own in a short amount of time. The plot twists in fun and surprising ways, leveraging an eclectic set of characters including ministers who are not what they seem, society matrons, and Elizabeth’s slightly unsavory (but utterly charming and oddly moral) pals from her grifting days. Nice historical touches covering the suffragist movement (not suffragette which they find demeaning), the social rules of etiquette as extracted from Mrs. Edith B. Ordway’s The Etiquette of Today, and the origin of safe deposit boxes. Interesting discussions on the rules of law, the roots of civilization, and how to determine what is morally appropriate in a situation.

Great read!