Books Bought (3.5.16)


Alvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death:

A daring, kaleidoscopic novel about the clash of empires and ideas, told through a tennis match in the sixteenth century between the radical Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, played with a ball made from the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn.

The poet and the painter battle it out in Rome before a crowd that includes Galileo, Mary Magdalene, and a generation of popes who would throw the world into flames. In England, Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII execute Anne Boleyn, and her crafty executioner transforms her legendary locks into those most-sought-after tennis balls. Across the ocean in Mexico, the last Aztec emperors play their own games, as the conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Mayan translator and lover, La Malinche, scheme and conquer, fight and f**k, not knowing that their domestic comedy will change the course of history. In a remote Mexican colony a bishop reads Thomas More’s Utopia and thinks that it’s a manual instead of a parody. And in today’s New York City, a man searches for answers to impossible questions, for a book that is both an archive and an oracle.

Álvaro Enrigue’s mind-bending story features assassinations and executions, hallucinogenic mushrooms, bawdy criminals, carnal liaisons and papal schemes, artistic and religious revolutions, love and war. A blazingly original voice and a postmodern visionary, Enrigue tells the grand adventure of the dawn of the modern era, breaking down traditions and upending expectations, in this bold, powerful gut-punch of a novel.

Enrigue’s book has been getting a lot of attention this year; in fact, I’d say it’s the most talked-about translated book of the year so far. (That standing will probably change once the new Knausgaard hits.) I’ll admit that my interest was piqued when I saw Natasha Wimmer (of Bolano’s 2666 fame) attached as translator, but it quickly became a must-buy once I saw Scott Esposito’s glowing endorsement of Enrigue’s fiction in his interview with him for BOMB Magazine. Then I find out that Enrigue is married to Valeria Luiselli, who wrote one of my favorite books of 2014, Faces in the Crowd, and, well, maybe that’s not much of a valid reason to check a writer out, but the pairing struck me as too fucking awesome that I simply had to read this book. Although I’m currently trying to work my way through the early works of Gass, prompted by my first read of Omensetter’s Luck, and various other things (including Jane Eyre, a book my former roommate declared one of the worst he ever read, which was a challenge of sorts that I could not pass up), I hope to get to Sudden Death sooner rather than later.

David Dark’s Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious:

For many of us, the word “religious” immediately evokes thoughts of brainwashing, violence and eye-rubbingly tiresome conversations. Why not be done with it? David Dark argues that it’s not that simple. The ease with which we put the label on others without applying it to ourselves is an evasion, a way of avoiding awareness of our own messy allegiances. Dark writes: “If what we believe is what we see is what we do is who we are, there’s no getting away from religion.” Both incisive and entertaining, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious combines Dark’s keen powers of cultural observation with candor and wit. With equal parts memoir and analysis, Dark persuasively argues that the fact of religion is the fact of relationship. It’s the shape our love takes, the lived witness of everything we’re up to for better or worse, because witness knows no division. Looking hard at our weird religious background (Dark maintains we all have one) can bring the actual content of our everyday existence―the good, the bad and the glaringly inconsistent―to fuller consciousness. By doing so, we can more practically envision an undivided life and reclaim the idea of being “religious.”

I first learned of David Dark from his stirring piece on faith in Kendrick Lamar’s music, published at Pitchfork. I’ve followed him on Twitter ever since then, where he’s shown an intelligent probing of religion and the Christian faith and how it intersects with pop culture and music. He’s a writer that I haven’t read much from but that I still highly respect. (His exchanges on Twitter with one of my very favorite songwriters, David Bazan, help a lot too.) After having read Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things, followed up with the second book in the Gilead trilogy, Home, I’ve been more and more interested in great writing about the Christian faith. Dark strikes me as someone who very well could write a genuinely great book about religion, and I’m excited to see what he’s done here with this new one. (Also, come on, who can resist that title?)


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