Sooo behind on this … I’d feel guilty, if you cared.
Nell Zink, Mislaid – this was a quick, light, and funny read; the dustcover premise (white lesbian student knocked up by gay prof, hides out posing as black) is quickly realized, and Zink has some predictable and not-so-predictable fun working that out. Lots of pitch-perfect observation of things Southern (it’s set in Virginia). Need to get her first novel now.
Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name – took me a while to pick up vol. 2 of her Naples
quadrilogy tetralogy, but I tore through it this weekend. Anyone dismissing these books as potboilers (1) may well be a sexist asshole, (2) has little appreciation for just how tough it is to construct a plot that keeps bringing the reader up short, and (3) must be ignoring Ferrante’s power of characterization and, even in translation, sharp and beautiful prose. Already into vol.3, which is going to suck because vol. 4 isn’t out here until fall …
Fritz Leiber, Our Lady of Darkness – a classic, but the kind of horror story that’s more interesting than good. You know those SF novels with a great premise that just doesn’t get worked out? Same problem. Leiber’s buildup is too slow (the book doesn’t get scary until halfway through); the next quarter of the book is the most interesting, as the protagonist learns about the eerie backstory (megalopolisomancy!); and then the conclusion is, well, lame. Leiber carries it off with his charm and characterization; if I lived in San Fran, I’d have to take a weekend to walk around with this book in hand, tracking down the locations.
Fritz Leiber, the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser series – surely, if you’re the kind of person to read sword & sorcery (a term Leiber coined), you’ve already read these, right? The best of the best. Having just slagged on Our Lady of Darkness, let me hasten to say that many of these fantasy stories are quite scary in themselves (“The Bleak Shore,” “The Sunken Land,” & more). Spooky or not, these stories exceed my powers of praise; the thieving & fighting duo are the archetype of the Likable Rogue, and get their comeuppance often enough to keep them a few notches short of insufferable. Collected in seven volumes, their origin story is in Swords and Deviltry, but there’s much to be said for starting with the tales in Swords Against Death, or the novella “Adept’s Gambit” in Swords in the Mist (a retrofitted story set in Hellenistic Tyre, not the world of Nehwon).
Alfred Cobban, A History of Modern France (3 vols.) – these books have been replaced by Penguin with weightier, worthy volumes, but the shorter books are well worth your attention. Cobban’s erudition is lightly worn, and his style had me underlining favorite lines. (On Haussmann’s “passion for vistas”: “The place de l’Etoile looks very fine from the air; it is a pity that it is not normally seen from that angle.”) Francophiles should pick these up. (The volumes cover 1715-99, 1799-1871, 1871-1962.)