Home > Book Reviews, Harry Crews > 14 books read in Jan 2010: more miniature reviews

14 books read in Jan 2010: more miniature reviews

I like to read around a book a week or 50 books a year. Mostly fiction. Mostly 20th century literature but some historical stuff as well, and science fiction by authors of particular interest to me (I stopped reading widely in the genre years ago). But I am proud to say that I finished no fewer than 14 books in the month of January, which puts me on target for a collosal 168 books for the year. There’s no way in hell I’ll get anywhere near that though. For a start, I ‘only’ have about 35 more books in my possession that I want to read, and the pace inevitably slackens as the school year gets going, which it is about to do. I posted some mini reviews earlier in the month, so here are a few more. Let’s start with the ones that aren’t by Harry Crews first.

Lenin’s Embalmers by Ilya Zbarsky

Basically this is a strange mixture of biography of the author’s father who was responsible in part of the embalming of V. I. Lenin after his death in 1924, and partly the author’s own autobiography. It did give an unusual insight into the world of Communist Russia in the early twentieth century, but there was a whole heap in here of fairly tangential interest. You’d have to be a Russia buff to appreciate this. Or an embalmer, I guess.

Raymond Chandler: A Biography by Tom Hiney

It’s been a full twelve months since I fell in love with the work of Raymond Chandler. I read a book called Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved which, while interesting in parts, made Chandler’s life seem quite dull. Hiney’s approach is less exhaustive, breezy even, but it made for a good, short introduction to the somewhat strange life of Raymond Chandler. I’m recommend it as a starting point, but I feel that there’s probably more to Chandler’s life than Hiney has covered here. Perhaps that was a wise decision though, as Chandler doesn’t appear to have left much of a paper trial behind him.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

I finally got around to reading the first novel in my Library of America Complete Works edition, and I have to say that it was a slight disappointment. There’s nothing especially wrong with Wise Blood – it has a couple of interesting and elusive characters in Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery – but as the book was concerned with matters of faith and heresy, I was left unmoved by the whole thing. It’s quite short, and while very well written, it didn’t strike a nerve with me. I’m expecting more from O’Connor’s later work (she was younger than I am now when she published this).

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

I’ve read this many times before. Full review to follow.

Onto the Crews books then…

Celebration by Harry Crews

His last novel except for the novella length An American Family (which I’m yet to read), Celebration is strong for about the first ten pages before descending into godawful drivel with occasional comic relief. I’m trying to repress the memory of how poor this is, so I can’t quite recall the names of the characters now, but suffice to say that he covered this ground much more effectively in at least two earlier novels. I was struck by how similar the setup was to that in the far superior The Gypsy’s Curse, which was written at least twenty years previously. In both books, a strong femme fatale character of superhuman strength and beauty pushes elderly folk into dangerous acts of self-renewal. I love Crews, but I’m afraid this one’s a stinker.

Karate is a Thing of the Spirit by Harry Crews

I knew I was going to receive a tacky paperback edition of this novel, given that the edition I ordered was published by Sphere in the early seventies, but the cover is the definition of tacky. I suppose I should scan and upload it, but that’d involve more effort than typing this does. EDIT: all right, I had to do it. This cover has to be preserved for posterity. Luckily the novel itself is a good one. In it, we are introduced to a guy called John Kaimon who wants to join an outlaw karate cult run by a guy known only as Belt. There’s another femme fatale, this one named Gaye Odell. There’s an empty swimming pool, a lot of gay men chasing after John, and a cult of people who eat pills all day long that they term ‘fresh fruit.’ Typical Crews carnival style, then. This is supposed to be among his best books, and while I certainly enjoyed reading it, I felt it lacked the punch of Crews’ very best work. But I could be wrong, and maybe it would help if I could track down the hardcover edition…

All We Need of Hell by Harry Crews

This one was a pleasant surprise in that I had somewhat lower expectations of it than I did of Karate, and yet I ended up liking this more. The novel, published in the late eighties, was Crew’s first after a decade-long hiatus. The first five chapters had already been published as The Enthusiast (which was itself republished in Florida Frenzy), and the character of Duffy Deeter had already appeared in A Feast of Snakes and in Where Does One Go When There’s No Place Left to Go? (although the latter wouldn’t be published until 1995). I hope you got all that. Written in a lighter, more comedic style in comparison with the darker A Feast of Snakes, All We Need of Hell is nevertheless an entertaining, amusing and thought-provoking read. The best thing about Crews’ novels is always the characters and the dialogue, and we have outstanding examples of both here. I can’t be bothered outlining the plot here, but Duffy Deeter and Tump Walker have got to be among the best of Crews’ characters. And some of the scenes, like the one where Duffy paddles his law partner Jert’s ass while the latter is having sex with the former’s wife, are among the funniest that Crews has written. Highly recommended.

But wait, there’s more:

  1. Graham
    May 8, 2012 at 7:35 am

    Try O’Connor’s short stories – “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in particular. And try The Violent Bear It Away.

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