Books We Can’t Quit: Put Out More Flags, by Evelyn Waugh


Little, Brown & Company

352 pages, $15.99


Review by Bridey Heing


Novels on war can be many things, but telling a story that is humorous without making a joke of war itself can be extremely difficult. It’s a line Evelyn Waugh walked continuously as he wrote before, during and after the Second World War, satirizing British elites with grace and good humor. In his 1942 novel Put Out More Flags, Waugh uses his cast of wealthy characters to illuminate the sheer insanity of creating war and those who see opportunity where conflict looms.

Put Out More Flags tells the story of Basil Seal, a recurring Waugh character who manages to make himself part of mischief and intrigue wherever he goes. Seal is bored and looking for an adventure when war with Germany is declared, and the young man immediately sees his own interest in being well placed once the fighting starts. As he tries to play an intricate game of family connections and bureaucracy, his peers prepare for war in their own ways, be it drinking heavily or holding Ivory Tower debates on art. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer


Angrama Press (2004)/ Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (2008)


Review by Matt Pincus


2666, Bolaño’s last novel, which could easily be seen as five interconnected novels, is a literary classic in a young century. It is extremely rare for a Latin American – or any international author – to be translated into English, published and distributed by a major house like FSG. The almost nine hundred pages are well worth a reader’s time, as the narrator takes an underlying lucidness to the prose that builds on itself through plot inconsistencies. Bolaño knows our genre expectations as reader, and carries one on those expectations, only to continually create gaps where a “fiction-making system” is created, as translator and scholar Chris Andrews says. 2666 opens old wounds of history in the land, and exposes the trauma of a community governed by evil.

The text is separated into five parts, and each of these sections has a separate genre: academic satire, thriller, detective fiction, beat novel, and historical romance. They all center on the town of Santa Teresa, a fictional border-city in Mexico, much like Ciudad Juárez. The academics come to the city to find Benno Von Archimboldi, the writer, who is nowhere to be found. Amalfitano, a professor at the university, is hanging geometric figures on his clothesline, delving into philosophical digressions as his daughter goes in and out of the house. Fate is an African American reporter from New York sent for an article about a boxing match when he starts to learn about the murders of women in the city. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: Good Morning, Midnight, by Jean Rhys




Penguin Modern Classics

176 pages, $5.55


Review by Aria Aber


The first time I read Good Morning, Midnight was during my quarantine in a single hospital bedroom immediately after a New Year’s Eve party. My exclusion from the exterior world and the corollaries of my comedown facilitated a hefty journey into the depths of this underrated, forgotten little book. I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother, who believes that humans, if seen through the clarity of simple eyes, are, at their innermost core, emotionally tied to only one of the following: sad or happy. I don’t want to encourage anyone to follow this psychologically ignorant analysis, but I do praise its applicability whenever I encounter someone who has actually read a Jean Rhys novel apart from Wide Sargasso Sea (to which they were probably forced during an academic excursion) and enjoyed it. If they did, chances are they are somehow… sad. Not 2005 self-harm-glorifying Emo sad, but melancholy. It’s obvious that unlucky, poverty-stricken, white Creole writer Jean Rhys was one of the sad ones herself. You don’t have to be born into the wrong caste or know what it feels like to have to steal your lunch at the supermarket in order to understand Rhys – but you have to be receptive to the melancholy in everything: in ‘afternoon light’, in sunrises, in dancing under confetti storms, in ice cream, and even in grandparent couples who lovingly smile at each other. But this isn’t the only reason why I can’t quit reading about a depressed alcoholic woman in her mid-50s haunting Parisian streets between the World Wars. It’s because it’s wonderfully crafted, intensely poetic and brutally relevant … even today, almost 80 years after its publication. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: Lyrical and Critical Essays by Albert Camus, 1968


Vintage Books

384 pages, $11


Review by Gabriel Gilbert


I can’t quit Albert Camus’ lyrical essays. Better known for The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger, his lyrical essays differ in that they read more like prose poetry. I found his essays by chance around the same age Camus was when he wrote them—in my mid 20’s. What’s hard to quit is the fact that he writes in the language of someone sensing the end of youth.

Camus confesses in the preface that “there is more love in these awkward pages than in all those that have followed.” That love takes on the form of an urgent yearning for the past. Camus senses that life is fleeting, yet nothing escapes him. The sun bleached beaches and ancient Roman ruins in Tipasa—his home—serve as Camus’ muse while he struggles to catch his breath in search for that place where “his heart first opened.” His prose is biting. He contends with a world where war has robbed the young of innocence and life. His essays are underscored with a certain elegy. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: The Long Home, by William Gay

long home


Review by Jody Hobbs Hesler


William Gay’s novel The Long Home is epic in scope. Its rural, desolated landscape offers up the sublime as often as it portends doom. Its villain, Dallis Hardin, bends an entire rural community to his evil designs, gaining power from their weaknesses for liquor and prostitutes. Most of the book focuses on its hero, young Nathan Winer, as he pursues an unlikely love and strives to preserve his dignity while working for the devilish Hardin. The book’s sage, though complicated, elder, William Tell Oliver, opens and closes the story with his struggles to reconcile what he knows about the disappearance of Nathan’s father and his fear of what will happen when he comes forward with the truth. Oliver holds onto his corrosive secret until he must share it in order to prevent young Nathan from an inevitable act of honor-redeeming vengeance that would either land him in jail or in the grave.

Gay’s characters range from solid and kind to phantasmagorically evil. But even his best characters are flawed by pride and poorly-timed righteous indignation, and his worst characters offer glimmers of humanity. So The Long Home pits good against evil, but the rivalry is not entirely fabular but true and possible, too. All this against a backdrop of a 1930s – 40s rural Tennessee, where not everyone has electricity or telephone service, and a lot of people run homemade liquor and bury stashes of cash in the ground. They are dirt-poor dirt farmers, bootleggers, day laborers. They live (and die) by the work of their hands: honestly, dishonestly, generously, greedily – in a web of their own histories full of double-crossings and death. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
311 pages


Review by Corey Pentoney



When I first picked up A Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago—I know, I’m behind the times, here—I did so because it was a classic and had been recommended to me time and time again. As the familiar story goes, I fell in love with it, and have read it every year since, my already slightly ragged copy all the worse for wear for it.

The first time I read the book, the craft of Atwood’s writing was what kept me going, her ability to get into the head of her character, Offred, and stay glued there, is impeccable. With very little else to do as a woman in the Republic of Gilead, Offred spends much of her time scrutinizing every detail of her surroundings and remembering what she can of the past. “A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place a in a face where the eye has been taken out.” So she describes her living quarters with Fred, from whom she takes her name. Offred’s attention to detail is second to none, and the way she fleshes out the world for the reader keeps you hooked from page to page. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: Zuckerman Bound, by Philip Roth



The Library of America

645 pgs, $35.00


Review by Jonathan Russell Clark


The opening sentence establishes everything:

“It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago––I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman––when I arrived at his hideaway to meet the great man.”

With this remarkable and deceptively simply sentence, Philip Roth introduced the world to his doppelganger, the writer Nathan Zuckerman. The year was 1979; the book, The Ghost Writer. But, as that sentence suggests, Zuckerman’s Bildungsroman would be massive, too big for one book. Since the publication of The Ghost Writer, Nathan Zuckerman has appeared in eight additional books. But the ones I want to focus on here are the first four: The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1984), and The Prague Orgy (1985), which are collectively known as Zuckerman Bound. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: War Cries Over Avenue C, by Jerome Charyn


War Cries

Originally Published by Donald Fine, 1985


Review by Morris Collins


In his biography of Isaac Babel, Jerome Charyn describes discovering Babel’s writing for the first time. “I read on and on. I found myself going back to the same stories—as if narratives were musical compositions that one could never tire of. Repetition increased their value. With each dip into Babel I discovered and rediscovered reading itself.” This description perfectly reflects my experience of encountering Charyn’s own mysterious novel, War Cries Over Avenue C. Reading it for the first time was an epiphanic experience: I had just finished college and decided that I was going to be a writer. This meant that I was taking a year off, doing manual labor, and writing everything I could: stories, novel fragments, poems. I had an inkling that I was decent with language but unschooled in form. I wanted to learn the rules—how did a story work? What was a novel supposed to do? Then I picked up Charyn’s novel—and found myself quickly beyond any literary world I recognized, beyond the terra firma of conventional plotting, form, or genre. It was a novel of linguistic bravado, narrative mayhem, and structural acrobatics—a beautiful and crazy book where the author never stopped to wink or nod at the reader. Unlike in Pynchon or Barthelme—two writers Charyn is often compared to—the absurdity felt desperate, essential, and real. You could tell Charyn believed absolutely in his vision.

War Cries Over Avenue C opens as a war novel, a chronicle of two lovers who separate and find each other again on the front lines of the Vietnam War, but from this fairly traditional point it explodes out in a lyric howl, a novel of war and espionage and love and drugs that reads like a chronicle from the dream side of the twentieth century. Here, from early in the novel is Uncle Albert, a Henry James scholar and American spymaster discussing the war: “It’s a clump of ideas too far out for the regular boys…We conduct a war that runs counter to the war that’s going on…We don’t stop at any border…We go anywhere to get what we want.” Ostensibly he is describing the CIA’s covert operations along the Cambodian border, but he could just as well be describing Charyn’s novel itself, a novel running parallel to, but perpetually separate from, conventional popular fiction, too far out in every direction, alive with language that, as Charyn describes Babel’s prose, “reverberates in every direction.” Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

PANK’s Books We Can’t Quit series reviews books that are at least ten years old and have shadowed and shaded, infected and influenced, struck and stuck with us ever since we first read them.


Del Rey
912 pages, $25.84


Review by Dawn D’Aries

Once upon a summer in the mid-1980s, while perusing the shelves in a B. Dalton’s bookstore, I discovered a tome – as thick as the Bible — which granted me access to a world I had theretofore never imagined existed.

The tome’s paperback cover was intriguing: a white swan; a gold-hilted sword held aloft by an enrobed woman; a handsome white steed, its hooves obscured in mist. On the inside pages, the Prologue began:

 Morgaine speaks…

In my time I have been called many things: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen. Now in truth I have come to be wise-woman, and a time may come when these things may need to be known.

Here was a narrator who embodied all my girlhood fantasies of being queen of the woods behind my home, or a priestess who could harness the power of the wind. The novel, The Mists of Avalon, became my first purchase with the babysitting money I’d saved. Written by Marion Zimmer Bradley and first published in 1982, it is a clever interpretation of the legend of King Arthur, including the Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot, Guinevere, and Morgan le Fay. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace


PANK’s Books We Can’t Quit series reviews books that are at least ten years old and have shadowed and shaded, infected and influenced, struck and stuck with us ever since we first read them.



Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, 1996

Little, Brown

1079 pages, $18

Review by Joseph Michael Owens


I submit that Infinite Jest fans have gotten a kind of rap. Whether good or bad, deserved or undeserved, the rap’s derivation remains up for debate. What’s clear though is that I.J.  is most certainly not for everyone: hating the book does not make you an inferior reader, incapable of understanding its brilliance, a douche, a simpleton, a minimalist fanboy/girl, etc. Likewise, at least in my humble opinion, loving the book does not make you a hipster, pretentious, a “snoot,” a lit snob, a douche, and/or a postmodern meta maximalist fanboy/girl etc. et al. &c. […]

Infinite Jest is ultimately a book I can’t quit, though I should probably mention up front that it’s not like I’ve tried or have ever had any real ambition to change this. Every reader has a book like this; a book that, for some inexplicable and intangible reasons, sinks its hooks into you in a way that few others can. It resonates with the fibrous strings of your core being. When you read your unquittable book, harmonies synchronize; connections are orchestrated between the page’s ink, the room’s light travelling at 299,792,458 m/s, and the relationship between your retina and the dilation of your pupils; neurons fire across pathways in your brain and . . . something happens.

You inhabit the words of another writer. Continue reading