10 thoughts on “Reading 2024

  1. Slow Horses by Mick Herron

    Slow horses refers to British intelligence officers sent to Slough House, the department where MI5 sends its screw ups. They’re lead by slovenly-dressed, overweight Jackson Lamb, who’s exterior belies how formidable he is, reminiscent of Columbo. In this book, the first in a series, Slough House gets involved with trying to foil a kidnapping. I found the story and resolution satisfying, but Lamb is the main reason I enjoyed the book, and will continue the series. What makes him entertaining is his insults to his own crew, having no qualms with expressing his low opinion of them. However, while this jibes are amusing, they may not represent his true feelings for them. There’s some evidence he may have more faith in their abilities than these insults suggest. On the other hand, it’s possible he believes they’re incompetent, but in spite of that, he does care about them, making him into one of these appealing anti-heroes.

    There are a few things I didn’t care for:

    • MI5’s scheme seems implausible and foolish; it’s hard to believe they would do something so foolish. This broke my suspension of disbelief, but I pressed on.
    • Because of the first point, this weakend Diana Taverner in my eyes, making her far less formidable to be an effective antagonist to Lamb’s protagonist. Seems unworthy of someone like Kristin Scott-Thomas; that is, KST seems far smarter and tougher.

    On a side note, I’m looking forward to watching Gary Oldman and KST in the TV series.

  2. Dead Lions by Mick Herron

    Book 2 of the Slough House series was entertaining, for the most part, but these first two books, structurally feel like a typical police/CSI type TV show, where the solution and resolution of the story are compressed in a relatively short period of time, especially near the end of the episode–something I really didn’t care for. I hope this doesn’t continue in the subsequent books.

    There continues to be some unbelievable moments that diminish the Taverner character and threaten to break my suspension of disbelief. (Spoilers) For example, James “Spider” Webb secretly setting up a meeting with a Russian oligarch and then Taverner allowing it to continue. I just find it hard to believe anything like this would happen or be allowed.

    Having said that, Jackson Lamb continues to be appeal to me (in spite of some clumsy character traits by Herron), and the stories are mostly entertaining. So it’s on to book three.

    1. Real Tigers (3) by Mick Herron

      The novel functions like a self-contained TV show, although this ends in a way that leads to the next book. In any event, that didn’t bother me so much this time for some reason (maybe because I was expecting it?).

      I don’t recall any significant improbable moments, although, again, maybe I’m expecting them and adjusting accordingly.

      I think describing the plot could deprive potential readers, so I’ll just vague. The third book involves the kidnapping of one of the slow horses.

      A few other things: Herron is a solid writer. He’s not a hack. I especially like some of the back-and-forth dialogue between some of the formidable characters. I also continue to enjoy the Jackson Lamb character (although I think my earlier criticisms are still valid).

    2. Spook Street (book 4) by Mick Herron

      Herron is good at dialogue and that keeps me reading this series, as well as the Jackson Lamb character. But I feel like I could quit the series at this point–the mediocre plot and resolution no doubt contributes to this feeling.

      The initial premise: River worries that his grandfather’s mental state is deteriorating. Along with the ordinary worries that this would elicit, River wonders in what ways the British intelligence would take action. After all, River’s grandfather knows a lot of secrets. If he can’t be trusted to keep these secrets, would the British intelligence take drastic measures?

  3. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections appeared on a greatest 20th century American novels list. Since I owned a copy, but never read it, the list inspired me to do so.

    I don’t really want to write a thorough review, but I do want to say a few things. First, while Franzen is a talented writer, his ostentatious display of this strikes me as glib hipsterism. In my 20s and 30s, I would have likely found it dazzling and exhilarating, but now I’m not only less enthusiastic, I find it tedious at times. What partly makes the prose tedious is the skewering of Franzen’s targets, which seemed glib and empty. But maybe the bigger problem was that I just didn’t find a lot these moments very funny or amusing.

    Having said that, the novel was by no means a slog, and I don’t think it’s a bad book. For the most part, it did carry me a long and that was satisfying.

    Back to Franzen’s prose. After reading the novel, I had the urge to seek sleeker, plainer prose. Cormac McCarthy came to mind (and actually these thoughts occurred while reading the novel), and I believe The Crossing, the second book in the Border Trilogy, appeared on the aforementioned list. I also had a copy of that, which I also had not read. I had already read All the Pretty Horses, but that was about 30 years ago.

    So I decided to re-read it, even with some hesitance–hesitance because I worried that it was a book that would appeal to primarily to my 20-something self. Luckily that proved not to be the case.

    Again, I’m going to provide a few comments, not a thorough review:

    • Yes, the prose was the perfect antidote for Franzen’s writing. It was like eating a great hamburger or steak a day after a frou-frou French meal (that was OK, but not spectacular). I will say that McCarthy’s prose is pretty strange and not always easy to understand, but the spare-quality is something I really relished.
    • The novel can be described as a buddy-novel, similar to Lonesome Dove or the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I really enjoyed the dialogue between John Grady and Rawlins, as well as with Blevins.
    • I thought I may not have enjoyed the romantic elements in this, but I did.
    • The dialogue and description of actions seem to where the prose becomes more prosaic. However, with descriptions of the sky and landscape, McCarthy seems to take more poetic turn, without departing from a simple, sleek prose. Except for some terms involving cow-punching, McCarthy seems to make a concerted effort to keep the language simple, avoiding $50 words–even while expressing poetic and profound ideas. It’s an interesting approach.
    1. That’s weird. If I knew you read All the Pretty Horses, I have forgotten. I read it the year we lived in Pauoa and I didn’t think you sounded very interested in it.

      I have almost surely told you this, but one of my favorite memories of reading it: I can’t remember where I was, but I was deeply into it and an acquaintance asked, “What are you reading?”

      “All the Pretty Horses,” I said. “It won the National Book Award.”

      He said, “What’s it about? I guess with a title like that it doesn’t even matter.”

      I have also had The Crossing and The Corrections on my shelf for several years and haven’t read either. The Corrections has been inching closer to the top of the stack, though.

    2. I pretty sure I heard about this book and McCarthy from you, and I eventually read the novel because of this. But I don’t remember talking to you about the book, which would be a little surprising, because I think I would have wanted to talk about it, although maybe I didn’t have a whole lot to say. (Your anecdote sounds vaguely familiar. I fee like we did briefly comment on the title.)

      Well, I hope this inspires you to read The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain, as I plan to read those soon, and would like to discuss the book with someone who just read them.

      I’m more indifferent about The Corrections, although I could see you liking the book, especially the prose. For me, I think I’m tired of the subject matter and the approach–specifically the revealing of dark undercurrents or deeper discontents of modern, white upper middle class families, with a sardonic, bleak, or a mix of both, treatment. Books or movies like The Ice Storm, American Beauty, or even The Bee Sting come to mind. I feel like I don’t really need to see or read more stories about these this, and I feel similar about youth in urban ghettos or anti-war movies.

    3. The Crossing (1994) by Cormac McCarthy

      Book 2 of The Border Trilogy. If ATPH is like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Crossing is like Bela Tarr doing his version of this. To wit, the descriptions of the natural settings are more prominent–not necessarily cinematic, but poetic. Additionally, three long monologues that are philosophical in nature are prominent parts of the novel.

      Because I didn’t really pause to reflect on these segments (as well as some other philosophical moments), I really don’t have a good understanding of the film. It’s like rushing through a Bela Tarr movie, and expecting to have a good understanding of it.

      I hope I can write more about the novel, but I want to say one other thing. (Spoiler)

      The ending is one of the those moments that resonates while also being somewhat mysterious and hard to explain as well. That’s generally a good sign.

  4. I’m currently reading the third book of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels–Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. I wanted to write some thoughts about the first and second books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, respectively, but never got around to it.

    I’ll leave a few general comments here. First, I’m enjoying the series so far–much more than The Bee Sting or The Corrections. Ferrante’s novels center around a friendship and a community, more than one family, but all three novels emphasize character and relationships–hence my comparing all three.

    The series is a flashback, starting with the childhood of the two main female characters and the small, poor Neopolitan neighborhood they live in, including the friends and family that surround them. I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll just say that social class is a prominent subject of the series.

    As for the prose, it’s fine, although it’s also hard to judge because it’s translated from Italian. But I find the storytelling and anecdotes to be quite engaging and entertaining.

    1. I just finished the last book in the series, The Story of the Lost Child. About three-quarters into the book I had the thought that I would miss this book, the world and the characters inhabiting it.

      And yet, something about the novels tempers my enthusiasm, preventing the highest praise. I guess they’re very good novels, but not more than that. The quality of the writing, the character portraits, and the insights into the characters and human existence more broadly are not really exceptional, perhaps.

      I also think the novels would work better if they were semi-autobiographical–e.g., memoirs that are gussied up with fictional elements. That may be the case, but I’m not sure.

      Finally, I would have enjoyed reading and discussing this with Grace, Penny, and Mitchell.

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