Fiction: The Trial, by Franz Kafka

This was our challenge book for December. So much fun!!! Dad had read it back in high school and been totally traumatized. Then at some point watched the Orson Welles film of it and found it equally traumatizing. But somehow, to both of us, this time around it was just soooo farcical. Might make a good companion for a book we read earlier in the year “The Good Soldier Svejk”.
The end is a bit of a shocker just because the narrator has, for the most part, taken things so lightly until then that you sort of expect it to just keep going on forever. It was a lot of fun to read.

Short Stories: The Oxford Book of Short Stories, by V.S. Pritchett

Our November challenge book. Admittedly many of these stories are drawn from older/earlier writers, but a big chunk of them felt dated to me moreso in their style than anything else. This is just a random, not researched or well thought out, theory but modern short stories seem to have stronger plots, better drawn (and perhaps intenser) situations, more things happen, and people have stronger reactions to the happenings, while many of the stories from earlier times seem more passive: one character “telling the story” to another, i.e., stories told at a remove (via third person, epistolary, storytelling or other device). Stories where almost nothing happens, or the sense that something “might” happen (sometimes a very specific thing) turns out…not. And then the story just…ends.
Although the Byatt-edited collection we read earlier in the year had stated that it picked “scary” stories purposely, we both found a lot of those icky, or super sad, but not scary. This collection however had some real creep-you-outers.
My favorite was “The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen.
p.s. yes you’re right it’s sad that it has taken me so long to get to writing about anything I read in October or November that I don’t have the DadReactions to these challenges in my head anymore. But you’ll live without them, I’m sure.

Short Stories: The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford

What a behemoth of a book for us to have picked for our challenge. As you may remember, we wound out spreading this one out and reading it in both July AND October and even then it was touch and go whether we’d finish this one as it’s just too darn big for me to carry around (and I do apparently almost all my reading in transit).
There were a few oldies thrown in at the beginning, where I thought “what is this one doing here?” (i.e., given the composition of the rest of the choices), but for the most part I thought these were good stories. My favorites were “The Pugilist at Rest” by Thom Jones, “Firelight” by Tobias Wolff, “Blue Boy” by Kevin Canty, “Anthropology” by Andrea Lee and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” by George Saunders. And my least favorite was the Mary Gaitskill next to which I wrote just “Ick.”

Short Stories: Dead Boys, by Richard Lange

This was our September challenge book and it was so nice to be reading short stories again after slogging through the Musil in August.
These are not happy times stories. Someone in every story is lost (physically, mentally or emotionally), or lonely, or angry, or … or they’ve come to the end of what they can handle or find their way around.
For some characters, their searching leaves them in a better place than where they began, but never the perfect place. But for some, the story’s end is further down a road they never should have been on in the first place.
Really engaging. Unexpected. True and original. Unlike stories you’ve read before. In a very gritty down to earth way.

Fiction: The Man Without Qualities, Volume I, by Robert Musil

Tthis was our August challenge book. And we did not enjoy it.
The reason it made our list was Dad had bought it years ago and always meant to read it, particularly after the Wilkins/Pike translation came out and it was lauded everywhere as “the third member of the trinity in 20th-century literature, complementing Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past” (Wall Street Journal).
In the beginning, I found it sardonic and was open to it. As it went on, it dragged and felt very pedantic and, as I put it, “kinda prissy.” Dad’s more adult reaction was “It’s very arch.”
We can sort of understand the reaction, originally. A big book trying to touch on a million different European themes right as the War is sneaking up on everyone…
But to compare it to Joyce? or Proust? No. Not in the same league. Not experimental, not groundbreaking, not even truly entertaining. And not worth our time to read Volume II so we’ve scratched that from our plan.

Challenge ’08 Update.

We are tweaking our challenge slightly.

In July, we both only got through the first half (it was THICK). And in August, we finished (eventually. Or I did, a few days into September, can’t remember if Dad actually did or not) but we did NOT enjoy the book and have no interest in reading part II (which was the book for October).

So we are scratching October’s choice and reading the second half of the July book this month.

In case you were wondering.
October: “The Man Without Qualities, Vol 2” by Robert MusilSecond half of “The New Granta Book of the American Short Story” edited by Richard Ford
November: “The Oxford Book of Short Stories” edited by V.S. Pritchett
December: “The Trial” by Kafka

Fiction: War with the Newts, by Karel Capek

Our June challenge book.
Really sharp political/societal commentary. First section is really rollicking fun. Second and third, a bit darker. Sometimes very sad.
Poignantly predictable, in a way, given world history now in 2008, but probably less predictable and more predictive in its time (first published in 1936).
Loved it.
By the way, Capek is the dude who came up with (created? originated? whateva!) the word “Robot” (in his play R.U.R.). This is also the first book to cause some random stranger to come up and talk to me on public transportation IN MY LIFE and given that I have 5 yrs in Chitown and 13 yrs in NYC reading on public transit every work day, that’s saying something.

Short Stories: The Collected Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The May challenge book. I had the ’96 Farrar Straus edition so we went off its TOC for what we read (Dad has the Complete vs. the Collected).
Very entertaining, really liked a lot of them. Intensely detailed, plotted down to the last moment (even when there’s not much of a plot), really great dialogue, and lots and lots of crazy neurotics (“The Admirer”, for example. nuts!).
That said, they were arranged (way) too thematically. I mean four or five stories into dybbuks and devils tormenting innocent jews (I really didn’t realize there were that many devils in Judaic tradition) and they all start to seem a little too much the same (and you’ve still got another 20 on that topic to go). Then at the other end of the book, all the NYC stories were lumped together as well. Mixing the disparate types together might have made it an more enjoyable read (or I could have instituted my own mix and read out of order, but how was I to know they were grouped by type?) — not that it wasn’t enjoyable, but there were definitely stories where I thought “another one of these? just like the last four? really?”.
When you get to the NYC stories, there are quite a few where you suddenly see the influence he’s had on Philip Roth. “Old Love” for example shares so many of Roth’s current themes and similar personal details on the part of the protagonist. Dad thinks Singer (rather than Malamud) is really the model for Roth’s E.I. Lonoff (an elder writer who appears in some of Roth’s Zuckerman books).

Fiction: The Death of Virgil, by Hermann Broch

The April challenge book. Certainly the toughest read so far, for both Dad and me.

The language is rich, gorgeous and elegaic; much like reading Virgil himself (or Homer. or Ovid). It’s dreamy and powerful and image-full. But…

Part 1: Interesting. Lovely imagery and prose. Nice.

Part 2: Interminable. Almost the death of ME, let alone Virgil. Sentences so long, you can’t remember where they began or if anything has even happened in them. And what? Did he just suggest burning the Aeneid? WHAT?!?!

Part 3: Hey, there’s some stuff happening again! Still a very high-toned literary experience, but now the drama with Octavian really pulls things along. Some very neat imagery, the landscape arising out of nothing (much easier to do in film than in prose). His yearning is so strong, you can really feel it. [According to Dad the slave boy and Plotia play a very similar role here to that of Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz.” I was then castigated for not having seen that recently enough to be able to agree (or not). p.s. just between you, world wide web, and me, I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen it all the way through!] Really enjoyable.

Part 4: Ugh, we’re back to part 2-like process again. Dad: “It’s like 2001 the Space Odyssey. At first it’s kinda cool and then after a while you just get really, really bored.” Me: Hard to know what’s happening here, when he’s actually dead, what is dream sequence vs. reality vs. post-mortem? (And in this part, hard to care. If this was written like Part 3, I’d be all over it!)

Glad to have read it, but certainly never going to need to read it again. Definitely a challenge.

Short Stories: The Complete Stories by David Malouf

The March selection in Dad’s and my reading challenge. I had read a few Malouf novels so this was one of my suggestions.
LOVED it. [Both of us did.] Had no idea going in, but the dude is a MASTER of the technique and these are certainly some of the best stories I’ve ever read, and probably the best overall collection. [Dad might not be QUITE as nutty about them as I am.]
Seems he can write from any angle, any point of view: young boy, middle-aged woman, loner, popularity queen, happy, sad, criminal, just. The atmosphere is rich and vivid (and reeks of Australia, I could feel myself there again). The language is thick and layered and sensual [reminded Dad of D.H. Lawrence stories]. Really beautiful. In many stories, a BIG event has taken place “offscreen” (never to be known), with the focus on the human reactions and following chain of effects.
My favorite stories were: “Every Move You Make”, “The Domestic Cantata”, “Sally’s Story”, “Great Day”, and “A Traveller’s Tale”.
Highly recommended.