‘Nicotine’ by Nell Zink – An Over-The-Top Gross-Out Novel


‘Nicotine’ by Nell Zink   (2016) – 288 pages


e7e56acf-15b3-4e0b-9263-6ffb8841489aimg400I did not like ‘Nicotine’ very much.  That is unusual because I had been on a roll lately with my reading.  It seemed every book I had recently read, I have really enjoyed.  They all got grades of B+, A-, A.  I thought maybe I had reached the point where my selection process was so well-tuned I only picked books that were just right for me.  But today I see I was only fooling myself.  After so many wonderful books, I picked one, ‘Nicotine’, which I did not appreciate very much at all after reading it.  I am actually quite happy about that, because my reading ship has finally righted itself after nearly tipping over from all the great novels.

I can tell that Nell Zink really doesn’t care whether or not I liked her novel.  Otherwise she would not have called it ‘Nicotine’.

What did I not like about ‘Nicotine’?  Let me count the ways.

  1. In the first few pages I was subjected to a quasi-incest scene that served no purpose in the plot of the novel other than to establish that this was going to be a wild and crazy ride.
  2. Then we get the deathbed scene of the father Ned. I know that there are horrible things involving blood, snot, and infection that occur on the deathbed, but I don’t need to be subjected to many pages of graphic gruesome detail.   I suppose this passes for gross-out humor in this ostensibly comic novel.  Later there is a shit storm in an apartment house.  Ha, Ha.
  3. The father Ned is a shaman who has a large group of hippie-like people who come to dance at his funeral. The career path of shaman does not interest me at all.
  4. There is a lot of sex in this novel. The sex in ‘Nicotine’ is less than interesting and more than dismal.
  5. The author Nell Zink has taken to heart the literary advice ‘Show, Not Tell’, and thus nearly everything is shown, not described or explained. Thus the characters are under-developed.
  6. ‘Nicotine’ contains some of the worst dialogue I have ever come across in the sense that it is inelegant and boring. In good dialogue the characters are so well differentiated that we can tell who is talking just by their words.  Here everyone speaks in the same clumsy manner so it is difficult to know or care who is speaking at any given time.
  7. By making them out to be weird inconsequential spoiled idiots and anarchist squatters, Zink discredits those who believe in social justice. Although it pretends not to be, ‘Nicotine’ is a very right-wing novel, a story for Trump supporters.
  8. The characters in ‘Nicotine’ are so sophisticated, so jaded, so disgusting, this farm boy could not identify with them at all. It was like they were from a different planet from the one I inhabit.  These people mostly seem to all be looking for a way to get out of their manic-depressive disorder by getting transgender surgery.

Nell Zink claims it only takes her three weeks to write a whole novel.  I am surprised it took her that long to write ‘Nicotine’.


Grade:   D+


Less Well-Known Novels from the 19th Century that are Among My Favorites

For this list, I am bypassing ‘War and Peace’, ‘Middlemarch’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, etc. in order to highlight some of the lesser known novels and novelists of the 19th century which I have read and found to be among my favorites.


51u72qino1l-_sy264_bo1204203200_ql40_‘Don Juan’ by Lord Byron (1819) – Here is a satiric epic poem this novel reader really likes.  Of course there is also Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse ‘Eugene Onegin’ which is also a must-read.


res_t_9780285647299‘Mysteries’ by Knut Hamsun (1892) – Hamsun’s most famous work was ‘Hunger’, but he wrote several novels in the 19th century which are exceedingly good including ‘Mysteries’ and ‘Pan’ and ‘Victoria’.  You may want to avoid this Norwegian writer’s later work in the 20th century though.


gaskell‘Cousin Phillis’ by Elizabeth Gaskell (1864) – Her pen name was Mrs. Gaskell, and her real name was Elizabeth Gaskell.  Her most famous novel was probably ‘Cranford’, but I have found all of her work I’ve read uniformly good.


51yvk59xyxl-_ac_ul320_sr204320_‘The Relic’ by Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz  (1887) – So far I have discovered three wonderful Portuguese writers:  Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa,  and Jose Saramago.  Of the three, Eca de Queiroz was the earliest.  In ‘The Relic’, its anti-hero is ridiculed with comic irony.


000385253‘Marianne’ by George Sand (1876) – Her real name was Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin.  She dressed like a man, smoked in public, and had affairs with a number of artists including musician Frederic Chopin.   Ivan Turgenev said of Sand, “You breathe freely when you read her.”


1054622-_uy200_‘Torrents of Spring’ by Ivan Turgenev (1872) – Of all the great Russian writers of the 19th century, Turgenev is probably the lightest.  That may be due to his connection to the French and George Sand.  ‘Fathers and Sons’ is his most famous work, but I find all his fiction uniformly good.


dom-casmurro‘Dom Casmurro’ by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1899) – No question here, Machado de Assis is the greatest Brazilian writer of all time.  After reading his most famous work, ‘Epitaph of a Small Winner’, I plunged into all of his work available which was all fine.  Ultimately I plunged into a lot of Latin American fiction which I continue to find vastly rewarding.


882108-_uy200_‘Castle Rackrent’ by Maria Edgeworth (1800) – Here is the first historical novel, the first Anglo-Irish novel, and the first saga novel with an unreliable narrator.  I must warn you that the style of this novel is somewhat old-fashioned and different from the styles of today so that it might be difficult to fully appreciate.


135x190_new-grub-street‘New Grub Street’ by George Gissing (1891) – It is Gissing’s most famous novel, but I’ve read another, ‘The Odd Women’,  which was also good.  This is a doubly literary novel, because it is about writers pursuing literary careers.


51futussqcl-_sy344_bo1204203200_‘The People of Hemsö’ by August Strindberg (!887)  – Strindberg was most famous as a Swedish playwright competing with Norwegian  Henrik Ibsen for European audiences.  I have only read this one fine novel by Strindberg so far, although I have read at least a couple of his plays.



Since female writers are somewhat underrepresented in this list just as they are in 19th century literature (except at the very top with Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and George Eliot), I will finish with a poem from my favorite 19th century poet, Emily Dickinson.  Emily Dickinson wrote over 1700 poems, but less than a dozen were published during her lifetime.

emily-dickinsonIf I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Emily Dickinson     (1864)


‘The North Water’ by Ian McGuire – A Brutal and Compelling Whaling Ordeal


‘The North Water’ by Ian McGuire     (2016) –   253 pages


e74b5277-4020-4dfa-9554-d47b7c4082e3img400“The North Water” is a tale about a 19th-century Arctic whaling expedition.  Whaling was a rough ugly business but I suppose not much more disgusting than any business where animals are slaughtered.    Not that I am a vegetarian…

We tend to think of whales as glorified huge fish, but they are actually mammals just as we are.   Whales were eaten as meat, the whale oil was used widely in lamps, and the whale bones were used in corsets.  At the time ‘The North Water’ takes place in the late 19th century, the petroleum industry was making the whale oil usage nearly obsolete.

Don’t expect ‘The North Water’ to prettify the whaling business, not at all.  If you can stomach lines like the following about an already dead decomposing whale, you will get on with this novel:

“The blocks of blubber they slice and peel away are miscolored and gelatinous – much more brown than pink. Swung up onto the deck, they drip not blood, as usual, but some foul straw-colored coagulation like the unspeakable rectal oozings of a human corpse.”

Otherwise if you can’t handle these lines, don’t even try to read this novel.  Sometimes I believe Ian McGuire is determined to gross us out.

You are not going to hire refined gentlemen as your crew on a whaling ship.  You take the men you can get.

“He is a prick and a brute, but so are half the men on this bark.”

The worst is Henry Drax.  ‘The North Water’ opens with a scene in a London tavern district where Drax smashes in the heads of another man and a 10-year-old boy during a last drunken binge before boarding the whaling ship.   Drax is a good harpooner.

The story is told from the point of view of the whaling ship’s doctor who has his own questionable past in the India colony.

What does it matter, he thinks, if he is surrounded by savages, by moral baboons? The world will continue on as it wants to anyway, as it always has, with or without his approval.”

This is a relentlessly violent tale.  There are few lulls in the action which would have allowed us readers to better appreciate the intense scenes when they do occur.  Every scene is a harrowing experience.  ‘The North Water’ definitely works as a hellacious adventure story, but some of the great sea novels of the past like ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Lord Jim’ have had an extra dimension to them of either philosophy or social interaction that put them beyond just a brutal ordeal .  I missed that extra dimension in ‘The North Water’.


Grade:    B+


‘The Fall Guy’ by James Lasdun – A Wicked Modern-Day Suspense Thriller


‘The Fall Guy’ by James Lasdun    (2016)  –  244 pages



About thirty years ago, I read a new collection of short stories called ‘Delirium Eclipse’ which greatly impressed me.  Here was a writer who could vividly and eloquently capture what it was like to be alive in our modern world. That book of short stories was the first fiction by James Lasdun. I thought for sure that Lasdun would soon join the ranks of young English literary stars like Ian McEwan and William Boyd whose acclaim was rising rapidly.

But widespread fame was not to be for James Lasdun.  His next literary work was ‘A Jump Start’, a book of poetry.  I bought that book and it contains some very fine poems, but we all know how poetry sells.  Throughout his career Lasdun has devoted at least as much energy to his poetry as to his fiction.  His next book of fiction was another collection of short stories called ‘Three Evenings’.  But short story writers just do not generally receive the plaudits that novelists do.  Lasdun did not write a novel until ‘The Horned Man’ in 2002   He has only written three novels including his latest ‘The Fall Guy’ in his entire thirty year career    His novels have received uniformly strong reviews, but Lasdun has never captured the public recognition of many other writers.  He has also written a lot of literary criticism and book reviews.

‘The Fall Guy’ takes place in New York which is where Lasdun relocated.  It is told from the point of view of a guy in his thirties named Matthew who has bounced around in the cooking and chef trade but has never been all that successful.  He is staying at an upscale vacation house outside New York with his rich half-brother banker Charlie who is married to the beautiful Chloe.  Matthew does the gourmet cooking for the couple during his stay.

There are a lot of bad deeds in this novel of which I will not go into detail, but all that misbehavior surely does spice up the plot.  One thing about the writer Lasdun, he has no qualms about his characters being wicked in our current times.

Along the way we get some insights into gourmet cooking and into banking.  There is a subplot regarding the Occupy movement which is probably Lasdun’s only misstep in that the movement has already been nearly forgotten today.  Matthew does criticize his banker brother Charlie:

“You’re not only allowed to rob people of their life’s savings and steal their houses.  In fact, the more you rob people of their life’s savings and steal their houses, the bigger your year-end bonus, right? And of course if it all goes pear-shaped, you and your chums in your six-thousand-dollar power suits can just get together with your other chums at the Treasury Department in their six-thousand dollar suits and arrange for an eighty-billion-dollar bailout, paid for of course by the very people you’ve spent the last decade robbing and stealing from.  Right, Charlie?” 

The quality that stood out the most for me in ‘The Fall Guy’ is that Lasdun’s writing at the sentence level is lively and adept.  I found the prose here energetic and nearly addictive, so I burned through this novel much faster than I normally do.  The suspense of the plot propels this scandalous story forward at a breakneck pace.  This shocking novel is not what you would expect from a poet


Grade:   A 

‘5,000 km per second’ by Manuele Flor – A Graphic Novel with Subtlety


‘5,000 km per second’ by Manuele Flor   (2009) – 153 pages       Translated by Jamic Richards


Every year I search the lists of the best graphic novels to find one or two that might appeal to me.  This year I have come up with an exceptional one in ‘5,000 km per second’ by the Italian writer/artist Manuele Flor.

For me, the big problem with graphic novels is that they lack subtlety.  The stories in them are too simplistic, the drawings are too obvious, or the colors are too loud.  ‘5,000 km per second’ is different in all these respects.  This is a graphic novel for intelligent sensitive adults.

The story takes place in the three countries Italy, Norway, and Egypt.  The main three characters are Italian teenagers, Pierro, Lucia, and Nicola.  Nicola is a ladies man, but his friend Pierro is quite shy.  They are both interested in the neighbor girl Lucia.  Being shy herself, she falls for the shy one Pierro.

However the narrative does not hang around in Italy for very long.  In the next chapter Lucia is in Oslo, Norway living with a small family there.  In the next chapter Pierro is in Aswan, Egypt working as an archaeologist.

All of the drawings in this graphic novel are watercolors drawn by Manuele Flor himself.  He captures the bright radiance of Italy, the darkness and coldness of Norway in winter, and the hot sunniness and foreignness of Egypt to an Italian youth.  There is one scene of Pierro riding the bus to his Aswan archaeological site that fully captures the strangeness of Egypt to an Italian boy as he overhears conversations in Egyptian that he has no idea of what they are saying, and the people are dressed in types of clothes unknown to Italians.

fem-tusen-kilometer-i-sekundet3Perhaps that is what impressed me most about ‘5,000 km per second’, the capturing of the atmospherics of a situation.   There is nothing cartoonish about this graphic novel.  It communicates on a visceral level. Not all aspects of the story are easy to understand or to follow.  One must be fully involved in order to appreciate this understated story.    Much of the story is implied rather than directly described.

The title ‘5,000 km per second’ is the speed of voice communication over the phone from Norway to Egypt.

I believe this is a particularly fine graphic novel for those of us who read a lot of novels.  It has all the attributes of good fiction plus delightful artwork.



Grade:   A  


‘The Life-Writer’ by David Constantine – An Analyst of Feelings


‘The Life-Writer’ by David Constantine    (2016)   –    233 pages



Welcome to the world of feelings, where feelings matter and intense feelings matter intensely.  Never have I read such a novel as ‘The Life-Writer’ so obsessed about feelings to the exclusion of nearly everything else. ‘The Life-Writer’ is solely concerned with the higher sensibilities like grief and sadness and love and literature.

Let me first describe the situation that is the story of the novel.

Sixty-eight year-old Englishman Eric has been married to his much younger wife Katrin for about thirty years.  He suddenly is faced with a grave illness, and he does not last the year.  For Katrin left alone, Eric had been the exclusive love of her life.  After his funeral, she decides to devote her time to researching Eric’s love life from before he met her.  His first romantic entanglement was while he was still a teenager with a French girl named Monique.   Eric and Monique were together for only a few months, so I thought it was rather preposterous that Monique showed up for his funeral fifty years later.  However I guess in the esoteric world of feelings that kind of thing is possible.    All of Monique’s old letters to Eric, some of them never opened by Eric, are up in the attic, and Katrin decides to study all these old letters as well as to discuss Monique with Eric’s old friend from that time, Daniel.    Author Constantine takes us back to that time of Eric and Monique fifty years ago.

I am rather skeptical of the author as well as I am of his character Katrin attaching so much importance to this teenage romance from fifty years ago.    Actually I am skeptical of any teenage boy carrying on a relationship that is meaningful after all those years.  However ‘The Life-Writer’ is not written for romantic skeptics.

Monique is not the only woman in Eric’s past from before he met Katrin.  After his break-up with Monique, he married Edna, and that marriage was rather a disaster ending in divorce although they did have a son.  It was a rebound marriage.

OK, so I was skeptical of this novel’s premise.  However that did not keep me from enjoying this novel on its own precious terms.  It is a well-written careful analysis of feelings. I just had to get into the author’s mindset that these feelings are the most important things in this world.   David Constantine is also a poet, and ‘The Life-Writer’ does seem the kind of obsessive pristine novel that a poet might write.

David Constantine also wrote the story which is the basis of the movie ’45 Years’ which came out this year.  I watched that movie starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as part of this assignment.   It is similar to ‘The Life-Writer’ in that it is a story about people in their sixties re-evaluating their love of many years.  It is a movie that builds up slowly, but really grabs you at the end.   I recommend it, but I am unsure young people would like it as much.  ’45 Years’ is one of the few adult movies that have come out this year.


Grade:   B+


‘News of the World’ by Paulette Jiles – Predictable or Inevitable?

‘News of the World’ by Paulette Jiles    (2016) – 209 pages


‘News of the World’ is a simple tale that takes place in 1870, five years after the Civil War.  Captain Kidd who is in his early seventies makes a living travelling around Texas reading the current news of the world to groups of men and women in places that don’t have newspapers.  At one stop he encounters a ten year-old girl Johanna who had been kidnapped by a tribe of Kiowa Indians four years ago.  The Indians had killed the rest of her family, and she has been living with the tribe and has adopted many of their ways.  She now has been rescued, and the Captain is asked to take her along down to San Antonio so she can live with her only known living relatives, an aunt and uncle.

The story is told in dignified and stately fashion, and it reminded me of the classic cowboy movies of the 1940s and 1950s like ‘Red River’, ‘High Noon’, ‘Stagecoach’, and ‘The Searchers’.  It also brought me back to the TV westerns of the early 1960s.  We all knew the good guys were going to win by the time the TV show ended, because they would be back next week same as always.   It was all quite predictable but we didn’t care; we watched them anyway.  We took comfort in the inevitability of the conclusion.  This was manifest destiny.

The girl Johanna is used to Kiowa Indian ways and starts out wild and unfriendly and doesn’t talk, but gradually after a gunfight with some bad guys and other mishaps on the open road she slowly learns to trust the Captain, and the Captain learns to trust her.  This plot is one of the oldest and one I have run across repeatedly starting with ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, but it is still affecting when done well as it is here.

The author Paulette Jiles is also a poet, and it shows in the precision and simplicity of her language.  Unlike some other works of fiction by poets that I have read, her characters are down to earth and well-grounded in day-to-day prosaic reality.   I had no problem empathizing with her characters.

I do believe this is a fine novel for full grown adults, but I would especially recommend ‘News of the World’ to high school students or those who don’t read a lot of novels.  Its simple understated charms should win over a lot of readers.

Some of us more heavy-duty readers may believe we have encountered this novel somewhere else before.


Grade:    A-


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