About a Mountain (2010) by John D'Agata
John D'Agata is a bit of a mystery. His bios read like a very carefully constructed mask. Bare bones in a very self-conscious way. I've read all of his books. Halls of Fame is one of my favorite non-fiction books of the 2000s. I wrote a speculative essay about his childhood for a class in college. He taught a workshop I attended. He has influenced my writing in a real way. I would put him in line as the heir of Joan Didion. Which is probably a loaded statement.
About a Mountain is a book about a suicide. A book about Las Vegas. A book about the proposed radioactive dump at Yucca Mountain. It is at its core, a book about how human lives intersect in strange and wonderful ways. It is about synchronicity.
Now go read Didion's The White Album. At her best she is about synchronicity as well. Even at her worst she lays the lines we cannot see. D'Agata does this too. And it is magical even when flawed.
Distant Star (1996) by Roberto Bolaño
Distant Star is a short book, 150 pages. It is an expansion of a shorter work from Bolaño's book Nazi Literature in the Americas. The story concerns the strange history of aviator Alberto Ruiz-Tagle. He starts a strange poetic movement in Pinochet's Chile. Ruiz-Tagle sky writes his poems. Using an airplane and smoke. He comments and promotes the Pinochet government. Ruiz-Tagle is slowly revealed to be way more involved in the dark corners of the government over the course of the book. Everything is witnessed by Arturo B. and the book is framed as a story Bolaño was told. A classic double blind.
The book twists and turns and for being so short manages to read like a classic noir. It feels very close to The Third Man at times and Bolaño's use of language is amazing. A tightly wound novel. And quick to read.
The Lost Books of The Odyssey (2007) by Zachary Mason
Mason's book is weird. It reads like the actual text of the Odyssey but is clearly not.
Told in short (sometimes as short as a sentence) vignettes, the whole Odyssey story is told disjointed and broken up. Each section told as if from a different time/place. Some times Odysseus is a monster, a lover, a martyr. There are sections where he doesn't appear. The 'villains' of the story are given back story and allowed to have been wronged. The cyclops, Polyphemus, is actually a malformed man who is killed viciously by the Ithacans. In another view he is the savage demon out to eat the men.
Mason creates a whirlwind. In doing so, he manages to press Homer's epic further into myth while remarrying it to its bardic roots.
My Father and Myself (1968) by J. R. Ackerley
"The fair sex? And which sex is that?" (The Prisoners of War)
When Ackerley's father died a Pandora's Box was opened revealing a secret life. The elder Ackerley was a closeted gay man. Ackerley himself was openly gay. What follows is an account of Ackerley trying to unravel the secret life his father led and Ackerley's own sad sexual misadventures.
The book's third act involves Ackerley settling at non-sexual and getting a dog. Heartbreaking, and beautiful, Ackerley captures the tensions between father and son and of the age they lived.
The Manual of Detection (2009) by Jedediah Berry
Charles Unwin closely follows the career of Travis Sivert. When Sivert goes missing, Charles is unceremoniously promoted to detective. He finds a corpse in an office and has a narcoleptic assistant who is everything but helpful.
A strange whodunit that coalesces on the idea of how one sees, how one exists, and what a person actually is. The reader watches as Charles must learn to be a detective, follow the rules and solve the mystery of his predecessor's mistakes and ultimate disappearance. Dreamy, fun read.
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