The OF Blog: October 2014

Friday, October 31, 2014

A few books finished today to be reviewed shortly

Had planned on writing a review today, but I spent most of the morning and early afternoon traveling between medical clinics (I have an 8 mm left kidney stone that will require a very wince-inducing medical procedure sometime next week; yes, I'm in some discomfort still), so all I managed to do was finish reading Michael Faber's The Book of Strange Things and Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem and read the majority of Phil Klay's National Book Award-nominated short story collection Redeployment.

I'm working this weekend, so I'm uncertain if I'll get these reviews written tomorrow or not, but I do plan on having at least two of the three reviewed by Monday morning.  Then again, it might depend on how I feel.  Stupid, silly body.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days

The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave.  But that wasn't right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.  Three handfuls of dirt, and the little girl running off to school with her satchel on her back now lay there in the ground, her satchel bouncing up and down as she runs ever farther; three handfuls of dirt, and the ten-year-old playing the piano with pale fingers lay there; three handfuls, and the adolescent girl whose bright coppery hair men turn to stare at as she passes was interred; three handfuls tossed down into the grave, and now even the grown woman who would have come to her aid when she herself had begun to move slowly, taking some task out of her hands with the words:  oh, Mother – she too was being slowly suffocated by the dirt falling into her mouth.  Beneath three handfuls of dirt, an old woman lay there in the grave:  a woman who herself had begun to move slowly, one to whom another young woman, or a son, at times might have said:  oh, Mother – now she, too, was waiting to have dirt thrown on top of her until eventually the grave would be full again, in fact even a bit fuller than full, since after all the mound of earth on a grave is always round on top because of the body underneath, even if the body lies far below the surface where no one can see.  The body of an infant that has died unexpectedly produces hardly any roundness at all.  But really the mound ought to be as huge as the Alps, she thinks, even though she's never seen the Alps with her own eyes. (pp. 5-6)

The story of a life is a life unto its own.  It can be a tale of adventure, or of missed opportunities.  There are joys and tragedies in each of life's permutations and in a real sense, good fiction allows us to (re)imagine each of those possibilities as we live and endure the lives that we possess.  Who hasn't ever asked herself upon learning of an untimely death "what if...?"  Who hasn't wondered, perhaps aloud, what if things could be changed, what would happen next?

In her 2012 novel, The End of Days, translated this year into English by Susan Bernofsky, German writer Jenny Erpenbeck explores five different permutations of a woman's life and death.  Ranging from death as an infant at the dawn of the 20th century to a woman in dotage as the Berlin Wall, The End of Days is divided into five novella-length stories that explore these questions of "what if":  an  infant's death affects her parents; the young woman who survives only to die in a senseless fashion; the revolutionary who makes an unfortunate choice just before the German-Soviet War; a retiree who is five minutes too early for her appearance downstairs; a woman whose fading memories overshadow a life seemingly well-lived.  These capsule summaries, however, do not so much "spoil" the story as they circumscribe its outlines, allowing Erpenbeck to do so some interesting things within these short mini-narratives.

The concept of a repeating life is not a new one; last year, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life also dealt with a young woman, Ursula Todd, who would die and be reborn, (re)living the epochal 20th century.  Yet Erpenbeck's book is different in certain key ways from Atkinson's intriguing novel.  One important difference is in the import that the anonymous narrator's life has on events.  She does not affect the course of history; she is continually shaped by events, but she herself is but that Shakespearean actress who frets her hour upon the stage and then is seen no more.  Any changes that occur are minor; what we see unfold are variations on a theme, of how lives shift and shape themselves around the greater events that transpire around and through them.  In each of her five lives, from the nascent to the elderly, the protagonist is a product of a troubled mixed Jewish-Christian marriage who struggles to make her way as a woman through a world in which women are often oppressed by men.  While this is not a central element to any of the five substories, it is a common thread that runs through each and which provides a narrative unity that binds these five sections together cohesively. 

Erpenbeck's attention to the smaller details allows her to form symbolic connections that the reader will grasp as she reads further into the novel.  For example, I was struck by the way humble soil, dirt even, is utilized not just as a metaphor for death and the burial of hopes, but also with how it ties into the renewal of life.  This is readily apparent not just in the passage quoted above from the beginning of the book, but also in a key scene in the third section, set in the Russian steppe during World War II.  Soil is bound in frost, a necessary cold in which the seeds of too-brief lives are contained. 

Erpenbeck's narrative also has a curious "distance" to it that paradoxically makes these life permutations somehow more intimate.  By talking of life and hope and failures as though they too were tales to be recounted for an audience, something that might be instructive but which also has value in being an entertaining yarn in its own right, the reader's focus is concentrated more readily on the choices that the protagonist makes, which in turn allows the reader to ponder more closely questions of passivity in the face of great events and the amount of agency we might actually possess in our lives.  It should also be noted that this protagonist is not a monolithic character; her views and personality shift from life to life, as she is not static, but instead is dynamically transformed by the events that she does/does not manage to avoid happening to her in the next cycle of her interrupted lives.  This, too, ties back in to Erpenbeck's exploration of the limitations of human agency and it is done very well within the context of this story.

After all, as the woman's grandmother reflects in the first section after the infant version is buried:

For many years now she has known something that her daughter will soon be forced to learn:  A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days. (p. 15)

Through these five permutations, each presented with a clarity of prose and with great insight into personal power dynamics, Erpenbeck (aided by Bernofsky's superb translation) has composed a compact yet powerful novel that might be one of the year's best, whether in translation or originally written in English.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

An interesting quote on power and "freedom of speech"

Going to be writing a review of Robert Darnton's Censors at Work:  How States Shaped Literature in the next few days, but I thought this quote from his introduction might provide some food for thought when it comes to discussing the concept of freedom of speech:

In arguing for fundamental rights, philosophers use abstractions, but they generally understand that ideas take root in systems of power and communication.  John Locke, the philosopher most identified with theories of natural rights, did not invoke freedom of speech when pre-publication censorship ceased to be a rule of law in England.  Instead, he welcomed Parliament's refusal to renew the Licensing Act, which provided for censorship, as a victory over the booksellers in the Stationers' Company, whom he despised for their monopolistic practices and shoddy products.  Milton also railed against the Stationers' Company in Areopagitica, the greatest manifesto in English for freedom of press – great, but limited (no "popery" or "open superstition" to be permitted).  These examples, and others one could cite (Diderot, for instance) do not prove that philosophers failed to advocate the freedom of press as a matter of principle but rather that they understood it as an ideal to be defended in a real world of economic interests and political lobbies.  For them, liberty was not an unworldly norm but a vital principle of political discourse, which they worked into the social reconstruction of reality that took place in seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century Europe.  Many of us live in the world that they created, a world of civil rights and shared values.  The Internet did not condemn that moral order to obsolescence.  Nothing would be more self-defeating than to argue against censorship while dismissing the tradition that leads from the ancients through Milton and Locke to the First Amendment and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This argument may sound suspiciously high-minded.  It has more than a whiff of Whiggishness, and it may smell like rank liberalism.  I must confess to liberal sympathies myself and to finding Areopagitica one of the most moving polemical works that I have ever read.  But I also should amit that I sympathize with a second approach to the subject, which undercuts the first.  Whether spoken or written, words exert power.  In fact, the power of speech operates in ways that are not fundamentally different from ordinary actions in the everyday world.  Speech acts, as understood by linguistic philosophers, are intended to produce effects in the surrounding environment; and when they take written form, there is no reason to associate them exclusively with literature.  Some literary theorists go so far as to argue that it is meaningless to separate out a category, hallowed and hedged by constitutional restrictions, called freedom of speech.  As Stanley Fish proclaimed in a provocative essay, "There is no such thing as freedom of speech – and it's a good thing, too." (pp. 18-19)

Yes, I sense a very detailed review in the near future.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Looks like the next five weeks or so are going to be a bit busier than usual here

Although it is still another four days away, I thought now would be a good time to announce my quasi-annual November review month goal.  Since I'm not an aspiring piss-poor novelist, I don't do the write a novel in a month thing many others do.  Instead, I'm going to try to write 50 reviews over 30 days (or maybe 33, counting what I write starting tomorrow).

Luckily, I have a backlog of nearly two dozen books to review, so it shouldn't involve any more reading than usual.  Unfortunately, this means I can't make excuses for not reviewing.  Time will tell if this is insane or just challenging.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A few 2015 releases I already have as e-ARCs or have requested

Although I won't do a formal 2015 Upcoming Releases/Reviews Link post until January, I thought perhaps a few people might be interested in a few titles that I've seen on Netgalley (yes, I joined back in September, although I've been fairly low-key about it) that aren't scheduled to be released in the US until sometime in the Winter/Spring 2015.  I'll separate this into ones I've been approved for and ones that I may or may not get (I will be surprised to achieve 100% approval for these titles).

Already on my iPad:

Sait Faik Abasiyanik (translated by Maureen Freeley and Alexander Dawe from the original Turkish), Selected Stories (January 6, 2015 US release date)

Jim Harrison, The Big Seven (February 3, 2015)

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble (February 10, 2015)

Erwin Mortier (translated by Paul Vincent from the original Dutch), While the Gods were Sleeping (February 20, 2015 US release date; already available in the UK)

Jonathan Lethem, Lucky Alan and Other Stories (February 24, 2015)

Marian Palaia, The Given World (April 15, 2015)

Requests Pending:

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated by Lola M. Rogers from the original Finnish), The Rabbit Back Literature Society (January 20, 2015 US release date; already available in the UK)

There likely will be more requests in the future and I may update this post in order to have a record here (and to make it easier to transfer this to my future 2015 Upcoming Releases post).  Also note that this list does not include titles that I know will be out in 2015 but I haven't (yet) requested e-review copies.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Antoine Volodine, Terminus radieux (Radiant Terminus)

– Suite à une tentative de rekoulakisation, dit Hannko Vogoulian, il y a longtemps.  Nous, on était pas nées.  C'était avant que le kolkhoze soit rebaptise «Terminus radieux».  Si les Organes étaient pas intervenus, c'était à coup sûr le retour du capitalisme et de toutes les saloperies qui vont avec.  Ça a fonctionné deux ou trois ans comme centre de rééducation.  Ensuite, Solovieï est devenu président et ça a fermé.

Myriam Oumarik enchaîna.

– Pendant l'accident, on l'a rouvert, dit-elle.  On avait besoin d'un local pour entasser les irradiés en attendant que l'entrepôt de la Mémé Oudgoul soit opérationnel.

– On en trouvait dans tous les coins, des irradiés, compléta Hannko Vogoulian.  Fallait bien qu'on les emmagasine quelque part.

Le jacassage des deux filles r´´sonnait dans la salle d'eau.  Il donnait le tournis à Kronauer qui n'avait pas besoin de cette avalanche de paroles pour se sentir mal. (p. 80 Bluefire Reader PDF e-format)

I have read five of the eight 2014 Prix Médicis finalists for Best Novel.  Of the five, Antoine Volodine's Terminus radieux (Radiant Terminus is a possible English translation) is perhaps simultaneously the most fascinating and most frustrating to read and think about.  Although my French reading comprehension has grown considerably since taking an online French course this summer, this novel served to remind me that no matter how much of the grammar and vocabulary that I understand (well over 75% without adding another 10-15% for words understood in context), that there are some novels written in other languages that will tax the abilities of non-native readers much more than what might be presumed by the writing style or vocabulary employed.

Mind you, this is not a criticism of Volodine's work; if anything, it is a testimony to how this novel requires extra effort from all readers, regardless of fluency level, in order to wring the utmost amount of understanding from it.  While there were times where my not-yet-fully-fluent reading comprehension failed me, I could sense that there was something strange, magical even, transpiring in this story set some years after a nuclear apocalypse following the end of the Second Soviet Union.  Terminus radieux is the story of people after a fall, of dreamers and escapees, all doomed, who wander in a toxic Siberian landscape in which the living and the dead commingle, where there is a sort of communion with the supernatural, where the irreal and real collide and a strange brew of elements emerges from these interactions.

Volodine's tale contains a plethora of references to recent political and cultural developments, all tweaked in order to fit into what the author (who, I should add, seems to have as many authorial pseudonyms as the late Fernando Pessoa, some of which write stories that are referenced in the writings of other pseudonyms of his) has elsewhere called a "post-exoticism" style of literature that seeks to make even the mundane into something weird and unsettling.  Being unfamiliar (for the moment, that is) with his other writings, I felt at times out at sea, out of my depth as a reader, as I could sense there were some textual interplays occurring in the murky depths of certain passages that due to a combination of unfamiliarity with both writer and the language left me clueless as to certain things that were taking place.

Yet perversely, this actually made me think higher of this tale.  Certainly from what I did understand, Volodine has an excellently twisted sense of black humor and his fantastical elements, many of which seem to be connected to economic and political concerns, make for a rich, provocative tale of adaptation in a dearth of life-sustaining environs.  It is, as I noted above, not an "easy" tale to parse, but from what I did grasp, it is the sort of fiction that if it were translated into English, for example, could find a small yet very appreciative audience, particularly among those who enjoy both post-apocalyptic literature and savagely funny satires of current socio-political issues.  While I may have been partially defeated from understanding Terminus radieux this time due to my relative limitations in reading French, it certainly will be a book that I will revisit as I continue to work on strengthening my understanding of this lovely language.  Volodine too shall be an author whose works I'll also explore again in the future, as it seems he may be just the sort of writer that I'd enjoy reading in both translation and in the original French.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels.  The Traveling Symphony moved between the settlements of the changed world and had been doing so since five years after the collapse, when the conductor had gathered a few of her friends from their military orchestra, left the air base where they'd been living, and set out into the unknown landscape.


Twenty years after the collapse they were still in motion, traveling back and forth along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan, west as far as Traverse City, east and north over the 49th parallel to Kincardine.  They followed the St. Clair River south to the fishing towns of Marine City and Algonac and back again.  This territory was for the most part tranquil now.  They encountered other travelers only rarely, peddlers mostly, carting miscellanea between towns.  The Symphony performed music – classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs – and Shakespeare.  They'd performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings. (pp. 37-38)

Literature often conforms to and reflects contemporary societal concerns.  A case can be made that with uncertainty about the long-term sustainability of environmental and socio-political structures, stories of sudden, catastrophic collapse and struggles for survival in a changed climate have become more popular than ever before.  Several 2014 releases that I've already reviewed have touched upon some of these concerns, yet this does not mean that there is not room for yet another take on collapse, another exploration of how humanity might reorder and reinterpret itself after its civilizations fold under the weight of a sudden calamity. 

Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 National Book Award-nominated novel Station Eleven is one of those works that manages to maintain key features that are endemic to post-apocalyptic literature while introducing elements that allow for a greater consideration of those cultural artifacts that we reject or cherish according to the pressures of the times.  At first glance, it is a bog standard tale of a group of survivors twenty years after a deadly super flu, the Georgia Flu, has wiped out over 90% of the human population in a matter of months.  With its peripatetic, motley crew of actors and musicians, the Traveling Symphony seems to be just one more wandering band of folk, maybe kin to McCarthy's Father and Son in The Road or even the family groups found in Mandel's The Millions colleague Eden Lepucki's California.  But there is something different about Mandel's tale, something that took me nearly two-thirds of the novel to realize just what it might be, that makes it better than the latter and close at times to the quality of the former.

The narrative structure certainly doesn't make for an easy introduction into the tale.  Seen primarily through the eyes of a former child actress, Kirsten Raymonde, the tale moves back and forth from the pivotal night just before the Georgia Flu's explosion into pandemic status, when a renowned actor, Arthur Leander, dies on-stage of a heart attack while performing King Lear.  As the young Kirsten watches horrified, a former paparazzi turned EMT, Jeevan, futilely tries to revive Arthur.  From here, these unlikely personal connections spawn a set of interactions that span two decades and the destruction of most global civilization.  Mandel switches frequently back and forth from the near-future "past" of Arthur's final days to the mid-21st century "present" of airport towns and the rise of a mysterious prophet who bounds all who enter his demesne to stay at pain of execution.

At first, the connections Mandel establishes between the flashbacks and "current" events are tenuous, as there is a real sense that there is little narrative "glue" that binds these seemingly disparate events together.  If it weren't for the skill that she has in developing character and voice (several chapters or interludes utilize interview transcripts and quasi-historical clippings to summarize past events, while other passages have a more intimate feel about them, particularly the ones dealing with young Kirsten and with Arthur's family), there wouldn't be enough narrative tension to sustain the reader's attention for long.

Yet a little beyond the halfway point of the novel, these seemingly separate events begin to converge in some interesting ways.  Not only does the main plot, that of the Traveling Symphony dealing with this mad prophet, come into clearer focus, but several themes that Mandel introduced in these flashback sequences, particularly that of how certain cultural artifacts are more enduring than others, comes into play.  Of particular interest is how Shakespeare's plays, especially King Lear, come into play near the end.  It is not a trite, shallow exploration of the playwright's themes, but also of certain connections between the times in which he composed those plays and the times in which Kirsten and her companions live and operate. 

There is another layer to this as well.  From the Star Trek:  Voyager quote of "Because survival is insufficient" to the eponymous fictitious Station Eleven, there are certain pop cultural memes or touchstones that also survive the chasm of the Collapse.  How Kirsten and another important character deal with these shared preserved cultural elements is vital to understanding not just the mysteries of the flashbacks Kirsten has, but also in grasping just how the final scenes of the novel unfold.  Granted, these connections are not always integrated fluidly into the narrative, but for the most part Mandel manages to present them without an excess sense of treacly "deeper understanding" that often plague novels of discovery in the midst of calamity.

On the whole, Station Eleven is a fairly well-constructed post-apocalyptic novel that manages to be just original enough to surprise the reader on occasion.  While the situations and some of the outcomes are going to be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic literature, the characters and their motivations are sufficiently developed enough that there is little sense of this novel being a derivative work.  The prose for the most part is excellent and outside of the initial difficulty in following the numerous flashback sequences during the first half of the story, the narrative on the whole flows well toward a fitting conclusion.  Station Eleven is not my favorite of the National Book Award finalists for Fiction, but it certainly is a story that is worth most readers' times.

Friday, October 24, 2014

So I was prepared to write a column defending the notion of reading being more than just entertainment when...

I saw some chatter on Facebook yesterday about an article in The New Yorker by Rebecca Mead entitled "The Percy Jackson Problem."  I didn't have time to read it then (I was at work and just checking messages during my break time), but I remember seeing a plethora of comments about how valuable it was to "read anything of interest" and that "stuffy" literature would stunt a child's love of reading.  I found myself making a counterargument in my head, laying out reasons why people should and do read for more than just information gathering or for this nebulous thing called "pure pleasure," when I finally got around to reading Mead's actual essay earlier today.  It seems the discussions I read differ from the article.

Mead was close to writing a good article about the changes in speech, reading selection, and how literature reflects contemporary material cultures.  She could have made a case for how cultural diffusion is a vital component of our own lives and that what we read at any given age will directly affect what is transmitted to the following generations.  She could have done much more with this than to bemoan a contemporary adaptation of Greco-Roman mythology without acknowledging that it too is but one more link in the millennia of retellings and adaptations of certain story cycles to suit the needs of the considered literary/cultural generation.  But yet she didn't and it is hard to parse "The Percy Jackson Problem" as being much more than a lament that doesn't hold up under much scrutiny.

I think Mead perhaps was thinking of cultural distortion, of how things are lost in the transmission of years and societies, but this wasn't the thrust of her argument.  It just isn't a terribly profound piece (if it was ever meant to be construed as one).  It would have been interesting to see a case being made for how the literature that children and young adults read today has been shaping their socio-cultural values.  After all, what you read does matter.  Look what The Jungle did a century ago.  Then look how it is presented today and see the disconnect.  Reading for "pleasure" can also mean reading what is socially acceptable, or at least the social interpretations of said literature.  Reading for "pleasure" can also reinforce certain notions that help constrain generations.  After all, when is "working class" literature ever presented as such during a reader's formative years?  Yet there are many such titles that are read but not understood as such.  Things have been distorted in the transmission and reading that incites, that provokes, that leads to personal rebellion is often neutered or shunted aside in favor of this notion of reading primarily for "pleasure."

This, of course, is a very different argument than the one Mead presents.  It, too, is one that would anger many to even consider at all.  But I think it would make for a more interesting and sustained argument about the vital importance of reading and how what one reads (and the whens and whys of that initial reading) can shape their world-views (and by extension, their very same worlds) than what was presented in Mead's article.  Might write more on this topic at a later date.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Finally updated the reading poll

It had been over five months since the last month, so I added a new list of 16 likely future reviews (and a silly choice) for your consideration.  You can vote for as many of these as you like.  Almost all will be reviewed in the next month or so, but it'd be nice to see which ones pique your interests the most.

May you choose wisely and be guided by the spirit of the rabid Serbian reading squirrels!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

It is always nice to see squirrels getting their due

A few people a week ago or so made me aware of this new comic series, Squarriors, but I forgot to blog about it until now.  So yes, there's yet one more reason to fear the squirrels :D

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Richard House, The Kills

'Monkey, Paul.  Think monkey.  Change the codes, those codes are yours, no one else will notice.  That's the first step.  Second – and this is important – I want you to erase all of the personnel information you have on Stephen Sutler, anything non-financial, anything extra-curricular, private emails, anything like that, and when he comes in tomorrow, I want you to follow his instructions and divide the funds marked for his project into four new operational accounts.  Sutler has the details for the new accounts.  He has it all worked out.  Do exactly what he asks.  Make those transfers, and make sure the full amount assigned to HOSCO for the Massive leaves your holdings.  Divide it however he tells you into the four new accounts:  one, two, three, four.  Load them up.  In addition, he has a secured junk account, and I want you to attach that junk account to your dummy highway project.  Fatten it up with two-fifty, let him see the amount.  Show him the transfer.  That's five accounts, Paul.  Four accounts attached to Stephen Sutler, and one to the highways.  I want all five of them loaded.  Do you understand me?' (p. 11)

Richard House's 2013 Booker Prize-longlisted The Kills (2014 US release) is a strange sort of book.  It walks (struts?) like a thriller, has a few non-quack-like staccato bursts like one, yet it is something more and less than the sum of its four book-length parts.  It is a tale of a series of shady operations that take place in Iraq after the American occupation and there are a number of mini-mysteries that transpire over its 1000+ pages.  Yet the order of the presentation of these four parts can have an affect on how the reader understands what exactly is happening behind (and in front of) the scenes.

The Kills centers around a man who is now known as Stephen Sutler.  Receiving codes that will provide him access to over $50 million, he manages to elude discovery by law enforcement and those with whom he had conducted some shady business.  Just who is/was Sutler?  How was this heist pulled off and just who has an interest in finding him, dead or alive?

At first, these questions would seem to lie at the heart of an expansive thriller, yet House makes some curious decisions that undermines this premise.  His four narrative parts play fast and loose with narrative time and character presentation.  On the whole, his jumpstart, flashback, seen through another camera lens/angle approach makes the reader pause in her consideration of what she has just read.  His layering of perspectives does add to the character depth, although for those readers who expect a more "traditional" thriller that requires little more than just anticipating ahead a handful of pages instead of digesting what might not have really happened a hundred before, it initially can be a rough adjustment.  Yet by the end of the fourth part, if read in order that is (House has constructed this book so readers can read any of the four sections in an order of their choosing), there are some intriguing revelations...and more than a handful of continued mysteries.

Structurally, I was reminded of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, not just in the number of interconnected sections, but also in how some of these parts interact with each other.  From Russian gangsters to a more stylized look at Sutler's character, to a fictitious book, also called "The Kill," from which a movie has been derived, there are layers of commentary on contemporary society and its pop cultures that House explores to some depth.  For the most part, these commentaries heighten the narrative's pull, making it easier to read through the sometimes dense descriptions, as the reader wants to learn more about these possible connections between the book/movie and Sutler's actions/motives.  However, there are times where it felt a bit convoluted, as though House had constructed things so intricately that the narrative begins to flag in places due to the weight of its many moving parts.

Yet despite these occasional structural flaws, The Kills was an enjoyable novel to read.  There is a suitable amount of action for those who enjoy thriller-type stories, while the characterizations and ancillary social commentaries were for the most part integrated well within these four distinct sections.  One of the better action-oriented books I've read this year.

Monday, October 20, 2014


I literally have only two minutes before I have to leave for work, so I'll edit this post tonight to reflect my take on this.  But for now, presented without comment:

Apologies and Finality

The Things That We Do:  On Mistakes, On Apologies


Words are cheap unless there is a continual effort of repentance here. While these apologies sound good, it'll be a long time for many to forgive her actions. But in reading this, I couldn't help but think of those times that I might have helped enabled this behavior. I did at the time two years ago think her acerbic reviews were a nice, bracing counter to the "cult of niceness," but I did become uncomfortable at seeing the personal attacks, however at the time I was either silent or maybe slightly complicit in the verbal abuse. I regretted and still regret this and that is something I should note before commenting at all on this matter.

 So in reading this past week all of these posts on the RH matter, I saw a lot of hurt and anger on display. Words alone will not heal these griefs. Hopefully those who were friends before this can find it in themselves to reconcile. Those injured relationships and betrayed trusts are the worst casualties of this. So yeah, she has a lot to do to redress all of these hurts. If she'll do this, then things will improve. But if it's just one more way to deflect ultimate responsibility and to leave open a recurrence of this hateful behavior, then all of these words will not just be in vain, but they'll just be one more dagger to the hearts of those willing to trust. Time will tell. This is all I have to say on this, as anything else would risk continuing the arguments I've seen elsewhere over the past week.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Feeling a bit under the weather tonight

Not going to be able to post any reviews tonight, but hopefully when I wake up in the morning this vague nausea will have passed and that I'll have time to write a review of Emily St. John Mandel's National Book Award-shortlisted Station Eleven.  Ideally, I'll try to write one post in the early afternoons and another when I return from work this week, so I can catch up on the backlog of books awaiting some discussion.

Until then, I am at the mercy of the squirrels, as always.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Going to write several short reviews over the next few days

I've fallen behind in my reviewing and there are several books that I read months ago that I haven't yet reviewed.  Since some of my specific impressions have faded over time (and dozens of books, if not 100+, read in the interim), I think I'll write a few 2-3 paragraph reviews in order to provide at least a record of my general, lingering thoughts in advance of the late December Best of 2014 reads.

Just because some of the upcoming reviews will be shorter does not necessarily mean that these are lesser books; the majority I did enjoy in some form or fashion.  It also will make it easier for me to cover some of the Italian and French-language award finalists if I do so.  Also this doesn't mean I won't be writing longer reviews as well, but those will depend upon several factors.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wondering what 2014 releases I've missed out on reading so far

I'm going to be adding to my 2014 Releases/Reviews post this weekend, as I hope to get over 90% of the listed books reviewed (and 100% read) by Christmas, so I can have a good year-end Best of 2014 series of commentaries on the best of these books.  But doubtless I've missed whole swathes of literary genres, many of which almost certainly have produced some excellent books.

Care to suggest works that might be considered among the year's best that I do not have listed in my post?  I do plan on buying some more books next month after I finish catching up on bill payments related to my recent time off work due to a lower back injury.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A few quotes from books I've been browsing through recently

Interesting how a few of them can be connected thematically:

It is not that religion is delusional by nature, nor that the individual, beyond present-day religion, rediscovers his most suspect psychological origins.  But religious delusion is a function of the secularization of culture:  religion may be the object of delusional belief insofar as the culture of a group no longer permits the assimilation of religious or mystical beliefs in the present context of experience.

– Michel Foucault (1962), Mental Illness and Psychology, p. 81, used as an epigraph for Religion and culture, edited by Jeremy R. Carrette

Once inside the house again I remembered to try not to listen to the sound of the machines so long as all those others so I would be smarter when I got older and less hurt inside for certain whiles about the way things went on without me in the daily organism, though as that went on too I began to feel too I wasn't changing and anyway the effect of our inbred-from-Adam-and-Eve origins were beginning more and more to make effect in all of us.  Some days inside the house the days inside the house went on so long and still the digits on the machines' clocks would not blink; I could feel inside me, as the time stayed like that sometimes for some great lengths, the old National Anthem squirting through my organs into the surrounding furniture and glass, sucked out of my teeth and face in all its daily iterations of ads and silent thinking and holy money, into the house where then the house would chew it up; soon each time the house would kill the Anthem into a silence longer than all my cells lined up one after another in a queue inside my wanting and that silence was the new Anthem and that was warm.

– Blake Butler, 300,000,000 (pp. 10-11)

Life became severe for Marius; eating his clothes and his watch was nothing, but he also went through that indescribable course which is called "chewing the cud."  This is a horrible thing which contains days without bread, nights without sleep, evenings without candle, a house without fire, weeks without work, a future without hope, a threadbare coat, an old hat at which the girls laugh, the door which you find locked at night because you have not paid your rent, the insolence of the porter and the eating-house keeper, the grins of neighbors, humiliations, dignity trampled under foot, any work taken, disgust, bitterness, and desperation.  Marius learned how all this is devoured, and how it is often the only thing which a man has to eat.  At that moment of life when a man requires pride because he requires love, he felt himself derided because he was meanly dressed, and ridiculous because he was poor.  At the age when youth swells the heart with an imperial pride, he looked down more than once at his worn-out boots, and knew the unjust shame and the burning blushes of wretchedness.  It is an admirable and terrible trial, from which the weak come forth infamous and the strong sublime.  It is the crucible into which destiny throws a man whenever it wishes to have a scoundrel or a demi-god.

– Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Part III, Book V, Chapter I

My grandmother tells us
it's the way of the South.  Colored folks used to stay
where they were told that they belonged.  But
times are changing.
And people are itching to go where they want.

This evening, though,
I am happy to belong
to Nicholtown.

– From "at the end of the day," Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (p. 54)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Richard Flanagan wins 2014 Man Booker Prize, I rank the Booker finalists, and the National Book Awards shortlists

Lots of literary news over the past 24 hours to cover briefly.  Yesterday afternoon, Australian writer Richard Flanagan won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  It is a very good novel, one that is well-deserving of this honor, but having read 11/13 of the longlist (still have The Dog and Us to read; the latter hasn't yet been released in the US) and 6/6 of the shortlist, it wasn't my personal favorite.  This is not to say that I didn't like it quite a bit, because I did, but there were some other outstanding books on those lists that appealed to me just a tiny bit more.  So for those of you who like lists and rankings, if I had to file a preferential voting system ballot for the Booker Prize shortlist, it would have gone like this:

1.  Ali Smith, How to be Both 

2.  Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North 

3.  Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

4.  Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others

5.  Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

6.  Howard Jacobson, J 

If I were to employ star/number rating systems, the difference between the Smith and the Jacobson would be somewhere between .5 and 1, as I do consider the Jacobson to be well above the average, if not quite outstanding or excellent.  All in all, while I would have considered several other books instead of/in addition to these, this was an enjoyable shortlist (and by extension, longlist) to read.

Earlier today, the National Book Awards released their five book shortlists for Young People's Literature, Poetry, Non-Fiction, and Fiction.  I own/have reviewed some of the YPL, Poetry, and Fiction finalists and will try to review as many of these over the next month as possible.

Young People's Literature:

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (currently reading; excellent so far)

John Corey Whaley, Noggin

Steve Sheinkin, The Port Chicago 50

Deborah Wiles, Revolution

Eliot Schrefer, Threatened


Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night 

Fred Moten, The Feel Trio

Fanny Howe, Second Childhood

Maureen N. McClane, This Blue


Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition:  Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Roz Chast, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence 

Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living:  America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams:  Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh


Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See 

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman 

Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Phil Klay, Redeployment 

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Howard Jacobson, J

Before chancing his nose outside his cottage in the morning, Kevern 'Coco' Cohen turned up the volume on the loop-television, poured tea – taking care to place the cup carelessly on the hall table – and checked twice to be certain that his utility phone was on and flashing.  A facility for making and receiving local telephone calls only – all other forms of electronic communication having been shut down after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, to the rapid spread of whose violence social media were thought to have contributed – the utility phone flashed a malarial yellow until someone rang, and then it glowed vermilion.  But it rarely rang.  This, too, he left on the hall table.  Then he rumpled the silk Chinese hallway runner – a precious heirloom – with his shoe. (pp. 5-6)
2010 Booker Prize winner and current finalist Howard Jacobson has been known for comic novels that explore the darker elements of English Jewish society.  In his latest novel, J (actually with two marks through the letter), however, Jacobson eschews even the trappings of comic satire for a tale that might be considered dystopic not so much for the outer trappings of a society after some social upheaval, but for how his characters are developed in relation to an event that is so profound that they refer to it as "WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED."  While the mysteries of that and why Kevern 'Coco' Cohen puts two fingers to his mouth when pronouncing certain words that begin with "J" might appeal to readers, it is Jacobson's probing of how we try to communicate through the silences that we enforce through perfunctory social niceties that make J a fascinating and sometimes disturbing read.

There are a couple of main subplots that dovetail toward the end.  Kevern's half-stifled "J" talk, which is semi-abandoned through his arc in favor of slightly more direct talk of what has actually transpired over the decades leading up to Kevern's tale,  is but one small segment of a whole spectrum of social self-silencing that has taken place in Britain after some awful events decades before.  There are no email accounts, no social media, television is strictly regulated, even the language of social discourse has been altered – there is a sense of a great, horrific story lurking behind the stony silences of the newly-altered language itself.  Kevern's own surname, Cohen, is a clue, but not necessarily the blatant one some might suspect.  Related to this is the seemingly weird behavior of a young adult orphan, Alinn, and how she sees her future and Kevern's intertwined.  This second subplot, however, is not as well-fleshed as the former, and there are places where their interactions feel forced, at least until the latter part of the novel, where more effort is made to connect the two.

I referenced dystopic fiction above not because it is an easy catch-all term for describing a near-future society that would make for an uneasy dwelling experience for contemporary readers, but because J does something interesting here:  there is not a focus so much on the material aspects of this culture, but instead on how the characters are altered by this new societal order.  Take for instance the half-stifled "j" words said, words like "jazz" or "Jesus" or "joke."  These are words that have become here "j" words, just as we have today the "N word" and the "C word" to denote words that we know what they mean but we durst not utilize them due to their offensive natures.  We speak around them, half-allude to them, knowing what we want to imply, but not daring to voice directly those darkly talismanic words lest they evoke hatred and contempt.  Therefore, it is interesting to see a similar effect caused by these "j" words through the narrative.  What does it mean to have these seemingly-disconnected words being smothered by their erstwhile speakers?

This I suspect is the main thrust of Jacobson's book.  There is indeed another "j" word, one that is never really even half-uttered, that does come to dominate the others.  It is the reason behind "WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED" and how the reader chooses to react to this ultimate "j" word might determine how she comprehends the final parts of the novel.  That "j" word, which I shall not utter here for purposes related to exploring Jacobson's themes, has led to wholesale surname changes.  It has led to a polite relabeling of urban areas, all in an effort to efface a calamity of violence that unfolded decades before.  It is a cause, if not necessarily the main one, behind the peculiar semantic shifts certain words have taken in the interim.  In not talking about it, the characters are constantly reacting to IT.  The effects this has on Kevern and Alinn's self-identities, along with certain others, is chilling not because of what is said or done, but because of what is implied and suspected.

J, however, is not a perfect novel.  There are times where the subplots bow down and threaten to collapse under the weight of its narrative pretense.  Alinn's story in particular does not feel well-developed and more could have been done to develop her conflicted relationship with Kevern.  Even the particulars behind the "j" words and the ominous "WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED" are a bit heavy-handed when more direct allusions are made to them.  This results in a conclusion that feels at times a bit forced, a bit too strident in places and yet strangely empty and devoid of impetus in others.  While this does detract from the power of the setting and its implications, on the whole J is Jacobson's darkest, most unsettling novel and perhaps his best vehicle for articulating some of his socio-cultural concerns.  It is a worthy finalist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but I cannot help but think if it had gone just a bit further, developed its themes of identity and societal self-silencing just a bit more, that it could have become not just a very good novel but a great one.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Things I'm supposedly going to be working on this month

My second bout with kidney stones this weekend set me back quite a bit.  Not only did I miss the final two days of the 2014 Southern Festival of Books due to sometimes intense kidney/abdominal pain, but I didn't get any reviews written this weekend.  So it seems I'm going to have to be write virtually a review a day for the rest of the year in order to achieve my review goals, or at least to cover the books covered on this list

I do know that late tonight/Tuesday morning I will have a review of Howard Jacobson's Booker-shortlisted J up in advance of tomorrow's award announcement.  I also might try to write a review of one of the 2014 Prix Médicis finalists before I go to bed.  Then I would like to tackle this week at least two other Prix Médicis finalists that I've read before covering the 2014 Premio Strega longlisted/shortlisted titles that I've read but haven't yet reviewed.  It takes longer to write shorter-length reviews of works read in my fourth and fifth-best languages (French and Italian), so I might end up spreading those out.

After that, I think I'll try to review 1-2 of the bolded titles (the ones I've already read) on the list linked to above.  Certainly will cover the 2014 National Book Award-longlisted titles listed (by the way, their shortlists should be announced later this week, if memory serves) and then certain high-profile releases, like the Murakami, then will be reviewed at last.  I hope by the end of November to have my to-review list down to fewer than twenty titles, but it'll be a challenge, since I undoubtedly will be adding books to that list in the coming weeks.

Whenever I do catch up, that list should make for a comprehensive review of 2014 literature, with the possible exception of SF/F, of which I have read relatively little this year.  Now to see how quickly these plans fall apart.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Inaugural Kirkus Prize shortlist for Fiction

Another new lit award I forgot to blog about, the Kirkus Prize for Fiction will be awarded on October 23.  Here are the six finalists:

Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Lily King, Euphoria

Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names

Brian Morton, Florence Gordon

Bill Roorbach, The Remedy for Love

Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests

Not a bad shortlist; the three I've already read/reviewed are all good novels.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

2014 Southern Festival of Books book purchases

Yesterday, I attended the first day of the 2014 Southern Festival of Books (I didn't go today, due to a recurrence of kidney pain; might go tomorrow, but uncertain).  I first stopped by the McKay's booth, where I was pleasantly surprised to see three leatherbound Franklin Library editions on sale for $12 each.  So I bought the Styron, Theroux, and Bellow books pictured above.  Only thing bad about it was that some damnable fool put ex libris glue-on stickers on the moire interiors and it was difficult to remove them.

Two 2014 National Book Award-longlisted titles here, Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven (alas, no signed copy, as I missed today's session) and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming (if I feel better, I'll attend her 1-2 PM session).

Here are two books that I did get signed:  David James Poissant's The Heaven of Animals (already reviewed months ago when I bought the e-book edition; liked it enough to buy a hardcover edition in order to get it signed) and Antonya Nelson's Funny Once.  So far, so good with her collection, as it has some wickedly sharp humor mixed in with some serious themes.  Will review it in the near future.

Now if I feel better, I'll go in the afternoon and get the Woodson signed, along with the three Lev Grossman novels from his Magicians trilogy that I've already read/reviewed.

Friday, October 10, 2014

2014 Goldsmiths Prize

Forgot to blog about this the other day, but the second Goldsmiths Prize for literature just announced their shortlist.  Here they are:

Rachel Cusk, Outline

Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist

Howard Jacobson, J

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake 

Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know

Ali Smith, How to be Both 

The winner will be announced November 12th.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Prix Médicis shortlist, 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature announced

Two bits of literary news to share, both of which deal with French writers:

It was announced this morning that French writer Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature.  He is the first Prix Goncourt (France's most prestigious literary prize) winner to be selected as a Nobel laureate.

Also, the Prix Médicis, another French literary award that's been around for over 50 years and is intended to recognize writers whose talent outstrips their fame, has released their short list.  Out of the eight titles, I've read/am reading four, and I hope to have reviews of most, if not all, of them posted by early November, when the winner is announced:

  • Véronique Bizot, Ame qui vive (Actes Sud)
  • Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux (Grasset)
  • Hedwige Jeanmart, Blanès (Gallimard)
  • Frank Maubert, Visible la nuit (Fayard)
  • Laurent Mauvignier, Autour du monde (Minuit)
  • Eric Reinhardt, L’amour et les forêts (Gallimard)
  • Antoine Volodine, Terminus radieux (Seuil)
  • Valérie Zenatti, Jacob Jacob (L’Olivier)

And now the Prix Médicis shortlist for translated fiction:

  • Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam (Robert Laffont), traduit de l’anglais (Canada) par Patrick Dusoulier.
  • Lily Brett, Lola Bensky (La grande ourse), traduit de l’anglais (Australie) par Bernard Cohen.
  • Anthony Marra, Une constellation de phénomènes vitaux (J.C. Lattès), traduit de l’anglais (Etats-Unis) par Dominique Defert.
  • Antonio Moresco, La petite lumière (Verdier), traduit de l’italien par Laurent Lombard.
  • James Salter, Et rien d’autre (L’Olivier), traduit de l’anglais (Etats-Unis) par Marc Amfreville.
  • Taiye Selasi, Le ravissement des innocents (Gallimard), traduit de l’anglais (Royaume Uni) par Sylvie Schneiter.
  • Evie Wyld, Tous les oiseaux du ciel (Actes Sud), traduit de l’anglais (Australie) par Mireille Vignol.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux (The Language of Birds)

Je ne sais pas ce qui s'est dit.  Je sais seulement que ce fut mon tour.  La question était:  Est-ce que les livres nous regardent?  Je savais que les tableaux, eux, oui, les tableaux que nous voyons nous voient du fond de leur éclat lointain – même quand ils sont proches.  Mais pas les livres.  Je ne me suis jamais sentie regardée par Robert Walser, Franz Kafka, Roberto Bolaño, ni par Li Bai, Du Fu ou Emily D.  Les livres n'ont pas d'yeux.  Ils sont aveugles.  Ils ne nous jugent pas du fond d'une tombe comme si nous étions Caïn; ils ne nous observent pas du haut d'un plafond telles des caméras de surveillance.  Au contraire, ils nous montrent leur dos, tournés ailleurs, vers le secret.  Nos lumières ne les attirent pas, ils émettent la leur, radioactive, qui éclaire jusqu'au mal dont nous sommes pétris et que nous leur avons confié.  Ils sont profonds.  Des puits.  Ils sont l'asile de nos douleurs, de nos blessures.  De nos pires folies.  De nos déraisons.  De nos voix les plus sombres.  Les livres n'ont pas d'yeux, ils ont des voix.  Il arrive que ces voix sortent de leur bouche d'ombre, nous parlent, oui, et ça, je l'expérimentais sans cesse.  Souvent les livres me parlent, et parfois d'une voix argentine, d'une légèreté enfantine, comme exhalée d'un caveau.  Mais de tout cela je n'ai rien pu dire, j'ai seulement répondu non, les livres ne nous regardent pas; et je répétais, n'arrivant plus à passer à autre chose, j'en étais ridicule, c'était impressionnant, je répétais non, les livres ne nous regardent pas, tout en me sentant expédiée en pleine catastrophe, ailleurs, butée, serrée, bloquée, dans mon blouson magique, lequel avait sans doute pour moi d'autres impénétrables desseins.  Et ensuite je suis restée muette comme une attardée mentale.  Jusqu'à la fin. (p. 19, iPad iBooks e-edition)

In Claudie Hunzinger's 2014 Prix Medicis-longlisted novel, La langue des oiseaux (The Language of Birds in English), language, that of literature and of life, of nature and humanity, plays a central role in the narrative.  It is the medium through which we express ourselves, giving voice to those myriad emotions and thoughts that daily flow through, out, and over us.  Language is also meditation, through which we manage to filter our experiences, leaving us with manageable impressions.  In La langue des oiseaux, these elements, particularly in regard to literature and the understanding of other cultures and languages, are explored to great effect.

The plot is relatively simple:  a writer, Zsa Zsa, crushed by several literary rejections, decides on one autumn day to flee Paris with only a few books and other belongings.  She goes to live in a secluded wooded area, a hermitage almost, where she reflects on the literature of her life and her triumphs and failures so far.  Yet Zsa Zsa is not completely cut off from civilization; she has internet access and she stumbles across a Japanese immigrant, Sayo, who runs an online boutique of sorts, selling boys' clothes for women.  Their exchanges spark a reaction from Zsa Zsa, leading her to delve further into the "language of birds," that secret idiom through which so many mysteries withheld from more mundane tongues are at least partially revealed.  It is here, in these musings on language and thought, that Hunzinger's narrative is at its strongest.

Well-read readers will recognize several writers who influence Zsa Zsa (and presumably, Hunzinger, since this does have some autobiographical elements, if I understand this tale correctly).  Of particular account is the American poet Emily Dickinson, to whom Zsa Zsa refers several times over the course of the story.  There certainly are traces of her and other writers (including those described above in the excerpted quote) in the narrative, particularly in the way Zsa Zsa views the surrounding nature and its denizens.  Hunzinger, however, does not dwell over long on these reminisces; Zsa Zsa is not a mouthpiece for literary appreciation.  Instead, these literary allusions serve to deepen the tale, making it more than just a chance encounter along the road of solitude.  There is an universal quality to Zsa Zsa's meditations and her later friendship with Sayo.  In their talks about language and meaning, several comments are made that easily could take place between people that we all know.  Like those rare mythological heroes and heroines who can understand the languages of birds and wildlife, we too find ourselves learning new "languages" everyday in order to comprehend better the word around us.

Hunzinger's prose is evocative, as the above quote reveals.  It freely moves between allusion and direct discourse, usually with a good balance between the two.  Voices and shadows.  Books possessing not eyes, but instead voices.  The narrative structure by itself is not terribly inventive, but the way that Hunzinger describes Zsa Zsa and her worldview, how she interacts with Sayo, those enrich the story greatly, adding enough layers for there to be the sense of something profound unfolding, yet not so much that the story feels bogged down by the weight of its own artifices.  La langue des oiseaux is a charming tale that manages to say more in less than 200 print pages than what most "deep" novels manage to express in 400.  Curious to see tomorrow if it'll make the Prix Medicis shortlist.  It certainly is a powerful novel that hopefully will be translated into English in the near future.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Consider this moral conundrum for a moment.

George's mother says to George who's sitting in the front passenger seat.

Not says.  Said.

George's mother is dead.

What moral conundrum?  George says.

The passenger seat in the hire car is strange, being on the side of the driver's seat is on at home.  This must be a bit like driving is, except without the actual, you know, driving.

Okay.  You're an artist, her mother says.

Am I?  George says.  Since when?  And is that a moral conundrum?

Ha, ha, her mother says.  Humour me.  Imagine it.  You're an artist. (p. 3)

Of the six 2014 Man Booker Prize finalists, Ali Smith's How to be Both might be the most "artistic."  I say this with scare quotes because often there is something about art that confounds and irritates many.  Whether it is the perceived "extra effort" that is often involved in understanding an art work's (literary, visual, or performance, they are all the same here) merits or that niggling doubt that the viewer/reader just might be incapable of the requisite empathy in order to grasp just how that particular piece came into being, often such works are set aside in favor of more "tried and true," less "difficult" pieces.  No, it is not a fair assessment, but it is one that takes place more frequently than any of us are ready to admit.

Yet when one does peer closer at the piece in question and when one does encounter something that captivates them, whether it be a line shadowed just so or a le mot juste or a cadence from an actress or singer that tugs at the heart's strings, that person is then drawn into the dialogue that is symbolized by the piece or performance in front of her.  How to be Both is at its heart a dialogue that forms across the centuries between a sixteen year-old half-orphaned girl and a fifteenth century Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, whose painting of Saint Vincent Ferrer haunts young George long after her fateful first visit to the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara just a few months prior to her mother's death.  It is her life, her changing views on it and on art, coupled with the "voice" of del Cossa through his paintings that George observes, that form a gripping dialogue on just what does ars gratia artis mean in this day and age.

How to be Both intertwines these two narratives, one of a modern young woman with her contemporary concerns about how to live with those of fifteenth century Italy and the struggles that del Cossa had in establishing his art, his vision, in a place where the mercenary wars were about to give way a generation later to the ruinous French invasion.  Smith does an outstanding job in establishing these two voices, as George and del Cossa's concerns are shown in vivid detail.  Smith shapes the narrative to suit this dual voice perspective:  there is a mixture of monologue, dialogue, and a bit of stream of consciousness.  In a less adroit hand, these elements easily could have collapsed under the weight of their artifice, but Smith manages to meld them together in such a fashion that each complements the other, making for a great read.

However, the intricate narrative structure is only just that, a structure around which the story and its themes are constructed.  Here too Smith does a fantastic job in establishing character and motivations.  The exploration of Art is done in a fashion that does not feel trite or treacly; after all, these two characters have suffered much for their eventual understanding of what Art entails.  Each little detail, from hawkers declaiming what they know the piece in question to be to questions of perspective, builds upon each other, creating a literary piece that is stronger than the sum of its already impressive parts.

How to be Both is the most daring of the six shortlisted titles on this year's Man Booker Prize.  Its language is captivating, its characters are powerfully dynamic despite one not being presented in a "traditional" fashion, its themes are no less ambitious than trying to discern just what "art" truly might be.  In a fairly strong field, it holds its own when it comes to being a novel that can be read and re-read multiple times for greater appreciation.  It may or may not win the award next week, but How to be Both is certainly one of my two favorites from this year's shortlist.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

At one level?  None of this mattered.  It was hard enough surviving day to day, both navigating the hordes at Zombie High and listening to the bomb that had started ticking inside my father's head.  A little flirting with Finn?  That wouldn't hurt.  But I concluded that it couldn't go any further.  When we met after school for precalc tutoring, I made sure that there was always a table between us.  And when I was in his car, I kept my backpack on my lap, my face turned to the window and my attitude set to the frost level of "Don't Touch."

Despite this strategy, the hordes gossiped about us.  Girls in my gym class asked me flat out what Finn was like.  That's how I found out that his family had moved to the district only a year earlier and that he had led the swim team to the state title but decided not to swim this year, and no one could figure out why.  I also learned that those same girls were pissed off; they'd assumed he was gay, because why else wouldn't he have tried to hook up with them before?

I dialed up my serial killer glare and eventually they walked away. (p. 149)

This year has seen several high-profile literary works that touch upon some aspect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  From Joyce Carol Oates' Carthage and Cara Hoffman's Be Safe I Love You to Iraq veteran Phil Klay's 2014 National Book Award-longlisted short collection Redeployment, these stories have touched upon how the violence experienced by those returning soldiers have affected them and those that they love.  In Laurie Halse Anderson 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature-longlisted The Impossible Knife of Memory, the deleterious effects of PTSD are explored through the eyes of an "Army brat," Hayley Kincain, a high school senior who has been on the move for the past five years with her vet/trucker father, Andy, with each trying, seemingly futilely, to escape their issues.

The Impossible Knife of Memory follows mostly Hayley's point of view, as we see through her jaded eyes her unease about being in yet another new town, with yet another school of teen fish to navigate.  Anderson does an excellent job in capturing the vulnerability behind that cynical façade, as can be seen in the passage above.  Hayley is a very introspective character, one who observes her world around her in acute detail, except when it comes to the central traumas that affect her.  She loves her father, but in lines such as this, it is clear that Andy's struggles have become such a "normal" part of her life that it is hard for her to conceive of others being happy or free of the issues that affect her and her father:

Our living room smelled a lot like chicken wings and pizza and a little like weed when I walked in the front door.

Dad looked up from the television.  "Hey, princess," he said with a grin.  "Have a good time?"

I hung up my jacket in the closet.

"Giants are playing," he said.  "Philly, first quarter.  I saved you some pizza.  Double cheese."  He frowned.  "What's that look for?"

"You're joking, right?"

"You love double cheese."

"I'm not talking about the pizza."

"Is it the wings?  You gave up being a vegetarian two years ago."

"Are we going to play 'pretend'?"

"Vegetarians can eat double-cheese pizza."

"It's not the food," I said.

"Are you still upset about the cemetery?"


Dad muted the television.  "I was thinking about what you said.  I'll call the cemetery and find out how much those special vases cost.  Mom didn't like cut flowers, but she hated being outdone by her neighbors, and that headstone looks awful.  Good idea?"  He let Spock lick the pizza grease off his fingers.  "Why are you still wearing the pissy face?"

"Did you run Friday night through the Andy-filter so instead of looking like a total ass, you can feel like you were a hero or something?" (pp. 185-186)

This scene encapsulates many of the central conflicts of The Impossible Knife of Memory:  Andy's drug use, Hayley's mom's death, the willing blindness that Andy has toward his failure to cope with his war experiences, Hayley's frustrations with him and with her inability to stick long in a place with friends.  Anderson illustrates these conflicts through short, sharp dialogues that cut to the heart of the matter with ease.  Each argument, each time Hayley withdraws from the affections of another semi-loner, Finn, each moment of solitude feeds directly into the subsequent one, until there is a clear sense that Hayley and Andy are flailing their way toward a possible bad ending.

Yet the story does not go full-tilt toward that.  Despite the sense that something ominous is inevitable, the actual conclusion is more nuanced.  Not all failures are final and not all who are lost remain lost in the void of their tortured memories.  For some readers, this might seem like a cop-out, a weakening of the events that lead up to the denouement.  Yet after some consideration, Anderson's concluding chapters set the stage for the next part of Hayley and Andy's lives:  recovery.  This does not mean that it is a "happy" conclusion, because for traumas and addictions, recovery is a life-long process with uncertain results.  However, having a bit of hope is more than having none, and in that sense, Hayley and Andy's stories feel like they have reached a certain stage and that after the story concludes, there are a number of paths they could follow.  Imagining these in turn helps make those scenes already read all the more intimate, because they have established these characters as flawed, dynamic ones with whom we can relate.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

A few things I'd like to write about this week

Been a bit busy this weekend to have much time to write reviews, but I do plan on reviewing the two Booker Prize finalists (Howard Jacobson's J and Ali Smith's How to be Both), along with at least two National Book Award-longlisted titles for Fiction (Phil Klay's Redeployment and John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van).  If I have time, will cover more of the Prix Medicis longlist as well.

It's funny how once Autumn arrives how my reading mood changes.  I seem to read more the final quarter of the year than any other time.  Maybe when it first starts to become cool at night, I just find myself staring more at my books than wanting to walk outside.  Certainly I've been reading some of the leatherbound books I've bought in recent years (recently finished re-reading Thoreau's Walden and might write a review of it shortly; also just begun reading Hugo's Les Miserables in both French and in the Easton Press edition of the original English translation) and I'm tempted by the idea of setting up a specialized blog just for reviews of "classics" after I've posted them here or on Gogol's Overcoat.  Redundancy is never an issue when it comes to getting people to read things that I have written, n'est ce pas?

Speaking of "classics," there have been occasional moments where I've toyed with the idea of compiling lists of possible "canonical" literatures, but with an interest in hybrids, of those works who can influence multiple societies and cultures.  For example, having Faulkner in not just a list of Southern literature, but also Latin American for his influence on the Boom Generation.  Sappho and Byron.  De Sade and Mirbeau.  Combinations like and unlike these.  Things that could shape world views and how we treat fellow human beings.  Such a corpus could say much more than just reiterating whatever socio-cultural "party line" you might want to follow when it comes to literature and its value today.

But for now, I'd like to dip back in to contemplating just what Hugo was saying through that sinner Jean Valjean.  Some things are ever a pleasure no matter how many times one has read it in the past or how long it has been since the last read.  Always something new to discover in certain literary works, if only we are willing to allow ourselves to be transformed by what we encounter within.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Tentative panels/signings I'll attend at the Southern Festival of Books October 10-12

Unless something comes up, I plan on attending my fourth straight Southern Festival of Books lit festival in Nashville this upcoming weekend, October 10-12.  It's a (mostly) free event, with only parking costs being the only guaranteed expense.  I won't be there the full lengths each day (have a physical therapy appointment early Friday afternoon and there aren't any compelling enough Saturday morning sessions for me to forgo sleep), but here are the sessions that I would either like to attend in full or at least catch the author in the subsequent signing in cases of schedule conflicts:


Our Weird Little Worlds:  Short Stories (Antonya Nelson, David James Poissant) - 3-4 PM


Immigrant Song:  Novels of New Americans (Chantel Acevedo, Elsie Augustave, Cristina Henriquez) - 11:30 AM-1 PM

Station Eleven:  A Novel (Emily St. John Mandel) - 12-1 PM

(will likely attend the first and stay in line for both signing sessions)

What Happened There:  Veterans' Stories in Literature (Phil Klay, Michael Pitre) - 1-2 PM (will be late for session)

Radiance of Tomorrow:  A Novel (Ishmael Beah) - 1-2 PM (likely only the signing)

Little Failure:  A Memoir (Gary Shteyngart) - 2-3 PM (late to session)


Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson) 1-2 PM

A Path Appears:  Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (Nicholas D. Kristof) - 2-3 PM (likely no signing session)

The Magician's Land (Lev Grossman) - 3-4 PM

Friday, October 03, 2014

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.  And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.  But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly.  Yet ever as they listened they came to greater understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent. (p. 15)

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion is a challenging text for reader and critic alike to parse.  It is not precisely a novel, nor is it merely a collection of short fiction; it contains elements of both, yet even applying the descriptive "mosaic novel" only scratches at the complexities of this posthumous 1977 publication culled from nearly six decades of work on the mythology of Middle Earth and of Arda as a whole.  Reading it closely reveals certain odd constructions, things that jar readers who come to The Silmarillion from reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Yet there is something moving within these oft-truncated stories, something that amplifies the echos of those wondrous murmurs from the hobbits when they heard an Elrond or Aragorn chant a snippet of tales from the Elder Days of Middle Earth.

Although Tolkien does not open here with an "In the beginning," the opening section, "Ainulindalë" (the singing of the Ainur), certainly reveals the beginning of the Kingdom of Arda, of which Middle Earth is but a part, with the singing of the angelic host of the Ainur of themes introduced by the God-analogue Eru Ilúvatar.  The language here hearkens back to several creation myths in its lofty, at-some-remove, style.  It works on a cosmological level, but it certainly differs significantly from the later, more action-packed tales in the book.  The first Fall, that of the mightiest Ainur, Melkor, presents this Satan in a more comprehensible fashion than the Tempter found in the three Abrahamic religions, but when read independently of the rest of the tales, it is weaker precisely because there can be no further levels that it can tap; it is the source, the beginning, and many sources are small rivulets compared to the raging rivers that they begin.

The second section, "Valaquenta," is a recapitulation of the end of "Ainulindalë" and it traces the origins and diverse nature of those Ainur, the Valar and their lesser brethren the Maiar, who chose to enter into Arda at the Beginning after Ilúvatar's Three Themes were sung in order to make concrete the vision they beheld of the music they had sung.  It too is fascinating on a mythological establishment level, but it too is weaker because there are few connections to the later stories and to the two Third Age stories published during Tolkien's lifetime.

The third and largest section, the "Quenta Silmarillion," tells of the first battles on Arda between Melkor and the other Valar and how the Children of Ilúvatar, the Eldar Elves and Men, along with the adopted race of Dwarves, came into being.  The language in these tales is compressed, in part because many of these tales seem to be intended more as linking sections to three greater tales (those of Beren and Luthien, of the children of Húrin, and of the fall of the hidden Elvish city of Gondolin) than as anything that might otherwise constitute novella or novel-length stories of their own.  But yet in reading them and considering their placement, a case could be made for these tales to be a sort of echo of the Three Themes in how they unfold, with certain rises and falls of tone, as the hope of the exiled Noldor fades as they learn that their rebellion and kin-slaying before returning to Middle Earth will render any attempt to subdue Melkor/Morgoth ultimately futile.

Certainly there is a melancholic beauty to many of these stories of valiant stands and heroism in the face of calamities.  The duel of the Noldorian king Fingolfin and Morgoth, the cursing of Húrin's family by Morgoth, the three Kinslayings due to the lust for the stolen Silmarils (the foremost reason for the war of the Elves and the Fathers of Men, the Edain, against Morgoth), each of these feels like a grandly tragic tale, one that might induce weeping from those presenting it.  It is here that the necessary editorializations by Tolkien's son, Christopher, and Guy Gavriel Kay, are most apparent.  The two had to cobble together tales that were either completed in 1920, 1930, 1937, or maybe post-1955 LotR and make them feel uniform.  Some tales, like the end part of the "Fall of Gondolin," were never extensively revived when others were.  Others were complete, yet their cosmology was at odds with other stories.  Although much of this was not readily apparent in 1977 when The Silmarillion was first published, the later volumes of Christopher Tolkien's The History of Middle Earth reveal that some of the choices he and Kay made in 1977 might have been in error in light of certain textual evidence that emerged from a more careful study of Tolkien's notes and alternate versions of certain tales.

Although these later revelations mitigate some of the concerns about the consistency of the text, The Silmarillion as presented certainly is a flawed book.  It contains powerful stories, stories that readers can find in more fleshed out (and yet "incomplete") forms in later Middle Earth-related posthumous releases, but there is an enforced flatness to them that makes it feel that the reader is reading a detailed synopsis of a series of wonderful tales rather than moving works of their own.  The Silmarillion ultimately is just a halfway-work; it is halfway between being a collection of tales and a unified work in which the tales flow smoothly into one another.  Yet even in its unfinished, sometimes inchoate state, there is a charm about the tales that does make the reader want to learn more, to see deeper into the tale, and to experience just what it was that drove Tolkien to make this the work (with several interruptions) for nearly his entire adult life.  Despite this, The Silmarillion just is not a work that can be read independently of Tolkien's other works; for a fuller effect, the more scholarly The History of Middle Earth will enhance these tales, provided one has the stomach for copious notes.  Sadly, the most striking thing that came of this first re-reading of these stories since my early 20s back in the mid-1990s is that there were so many promising angles that were abandoned.  What could have been!  Yet marred, like Arda after Melkor's corruption of it, as it is, The Silmarillion certainly provides glimpses into the myriad literary and mythological concerns that Tolkien had and for this alone, The Silmarillion as is provides us with much more than if it had been left only as a series of brief allusions in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Add to Technorati Favorites