Showing posts with label American writers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label American writers. Show all posts

Saturday, July 5, 2014

It’s a Mystery: Three to Keep Me Guessing

Hmm, three detective novels in a row is something of a record for me: it’s a mystery in and of itself that I pulled the books off the shelves that way. Here’s a post with all three, to get caught up…

I’ve had a soft spot for detective Hank Palace, the narrator of Ben H. Winters’s World of Trouble, ever since I read The Last Policeman (previous post), the first novel in a trilogy that ends with World of Trouble. Palace is a down-to-earth, loyal guy who continues investigating crimes despite the fact that an asteroid is hurtling toward earth and about to destroy everything. In World of Trouble, Palace and his ailing dog, Houdini, have come to Ohio to find Palace’s sister, who’s disappeared. Disappearances aren’t unusual in these fictional end days: people have been going “bucket list” for ages but Palace knows something bigger is amiss. There are lots of plot threads to pull in World of Trouble: an attempted murder, a search for a concrete worker, and, of course, Palace’s relationship with his family, ethics, and impending demise. Winters finds a near-perfect balance of humor, grieving, and realism, and he finishes the book in what I think must be the best possible way. Yes, I laughed and I cried, and [mild spoiler] I love the fact that Palace remains true to himself and the social compact ‘til the end. He doesn’t even yell “Police!” near the end of the book, “because I’m not a policeman anymore, I haven’t been for some time now.”

Commissioner Nicolas Le Floch, the investigator in Jean-François Parot’s The Man with the Lead Stomach, the second book in a series, isn’t quite as endearing or imperiled as Palace but this historical detective novel set in 1761 France made for worthy entertainment. I admit I was more interested in atmosphere than the mystery itself, which involves the rather grisly murder of a courtier’s son. That murder leads to another. Of course. But about that atmosphere: it’s a nice change of pace when there are no fingerprints taken, the investigator travels by horse-drawn carriage, and the detective drinks chocolate for breakfast and lots of wine with his meals, some of which are described in detail, this being a translation from the French. (I opened the book randomly to a page where a cook describes how to cut a rabbit for making pâté…) There are also smells in this early passage describing theatergoers: “There was a disconcerting contrast between their luxurious clothes, and the foul-smelling remnants of wax, earth and horse droppings with which they were soiled.” Michael Glencross’s translation from the French was particularly fun to read because it had some obscure words and terms in common with the book I was working on—this was a perfect way to see them in action in another setting and translated from another language.

Finally, a second book that originated in French: Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which I read in Sam Taylor’s translation of La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert. The truth about The Truth is that it’s an unholy mess, a blend of a writer coming of age (well, in a sense, two writers coming of age), a satire of the publishing industry, and a murder mystery, with whiffs of Peyton Place and Lolita tossed in. In any case, Marcus (“The Magnificent”) Goldman, a blocked writer who was the toast of New York a year or so ago, comes to the aid of his former writing teacher, Harry Quebert, after Quebert, author of a much-praised novel, is accused of killing a teenage girl, Nola Kellergan, back in 1975; the accusation comes after Kellergan’s body is unearthed in Quebert’s seaside yard nearly twenty years after her disappearance. Quebert lives in Somerset, New Hampshire, so Goldman is dealing with all sorts of small-town relationships, oddballs, and secrets as he interviews townspeople in his quest to free Quebert. Dicker throws in everything from the 1998 ice storm that “paralyzed” lots of New England to the first Obama presidential campaign to lots of seagulls in what feel like attempts to create verisimilitude and capture a time but The Truth is just too filled with extraneous pages, clichéd dialogue, and bits and pieces of disparate genres to come together as a full-fledged novel. Even so, damn it, the book is moderately entertaining and I did read every page. Part of the reason was probably inordinate curiosity after hearing Dicker and his editor from Penguin, John Siciliano, speak at BookExpo America in late May… but I think I’m even more curious to see how writers—not just Dicker but also Winters and Parot—adapt and adjust the detective genre’s typical casts, aesthetics, and plot turns to fit their interests and readers. For a very detailed account of The Truth, check out The Complete Review, here.

Disclaimers: I received review copies of all three books, thank you to the publishers and/or publicists: Eric Smith of Quirk Books for World of Trouble, which will be officially released on July 15; Meryl Zegarek Public Relations for The Man with the Lead Stomach, which was published by Gallic Books; and the nice man at the Penguin booth at BEA, who pointed me to a finished copy of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair masquerading as a galley. Thank you to all!

Up Next: Xu Zechen’s Running through Beijing.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Banality of Evil, Yet Again: Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club

Sometimes Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 feels as changeable and fickle as its cross-dressing and border-crossing characters: despite the hours spent reading this 400-plus-page book with multiple narrators, I’m still not quite sure if I read a social commentary, a character sketch of a maligned woman gone bad, a World War 2 novel, or something else. It wouldn’t be difficult to generate a list of at least another dozen possibilities. The strength of Lovers is that it presents a broad and fairly engaging picture of Paris in 1932 and beyond, complete with fictional versions of Violette Morris, Brassaï, and Henry Miller, though that strength creates a weakness, too: the broadness left me wishing Lovers had been a little sharper, a little more difficult, and a little more uncomfortable. Actually, I wish it had been a lot more uncomfortable. I seem to appreciate uncomfortable books.

File:Violette Morris 1913 (01).jpg
Violette Morris, 1913
Prose’s letter to readers in my review copy of Lovers begins by noting that the idea for the novel came from Brassaï’s photograph “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932”: the woman on the right in the photo is Violette Morris, a French athlete, race car driver, and collaborator with Germany during World War 2. In Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Morris morphs into Lou Villars, and Le Monocle is replaced with the Chameleon Club, a place where men dress as women and vice versa. Villars works there and Gabor Tsenyi, the Brassaï stand-in, frequents the place, as does his eventual patron Lily de Rossignol, whose husband owns a motorcar company. There’s chameleon-like behavior all around.

Prose hands the narrative off to her main characters: notably, Gabor writes letters home to his parents; we get bits of books by Lionel Maine, the Miller stand-in; memoir material from Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi that was supposed to be destroyed “on occasion of its author’s death” is published; and Lily de Rossignol tells all in A Baroness by Night. There are also chapters from The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars, written by a certain Nathalie Dunois, who shares a surname with Suzanne. All these accounts combine to create what inevitably becomes a mosaic of the narrators’ varied political, social, and sexual passions and alliances. The accounts sometimes coincide and sometimes vary but if I were to place one character at the center of the book, it would be Lou Villars, who transforms from merely a sad character who’s gone through family difficulties and a disappointing romance with a lovely but treacherous dancer, Arlette, (her partner in the fictional version of the Brassaï photo), to, as I wrote above, a Nazi collaborator. Lou even has a star-struck dinner with Hitler in 1936, when she takes a trip to Berlin for the Olympics.

The numerous voices combine nicely, sometimes even humorously, creating a nearly polyphonic novel. Still, I came away from the book—which I enjoyed and which I think is structurally and thematically fairly sound—thinking that truth truly is stranger than fiction and that Lovers at the Chameleon Club felt a little too cautious, a feeling I often get when I read fiction based on fact. I had a similar reaction to Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which features Reinhard Heydrich; Heydrich gets a cameo in Lovers, too. By contrast, Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur Le Commandant: A Wartime Confession, another World War 2 novel I read earlier this year, felt particularly vivid because it was so horribly uncomfortable inside fictional the Petainist narrator’s brain. And therein, I suspect, lies my small misgiving about Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Lou Villars, the collaborator, is one of the lovers in the novel’s title but the reader never quite gets to the depths (or heights) of her story because its telling is outsourced to other characters, all with ulterior motives and information deficits. I realize there are messages there, too—about the unknowable, about truth(s), and about memory—but still can’t help but feel a sense of missed opportunity and a wish for something much darker.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of Lovers at the Chameleon Club from publisher Harper Collins. Thank you very much!

Up Next: Roberto Bolaño’s puzzlingly pleasurable Distant Star and Ingrid Winterbach’s ominously eerie The Elusive Moth.

Photo: Public domain photo (copyright has expired) of Violette Morris from Bibliothèque nationale de France, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Oh, Brother! Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers

Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers is almost too much fun for one book: one hundred (or thereabouts) brothers get together for dinner in their family’s library and all sorts of fraternal and allegorical mayhem, some of which is seemingly ritualistic and sinister, ensues. All the brothers were sired by the same father and all were born on May 23 (hmm, Geminis, like me), though in different years. There are several sets of twins among them.

Antrim hands narration duties to Doug, who’s also the family genealogist, a man who says he’s into more than just family trees, meaning he’s working on “…the deep investigation into bloodline and blood’s congenital inheritances, particularly in connection with insane monarchs.” Doug is quick to reassure the reader, “I’m not crazy. But I do have the blood of an insane monarch running through my veins. We all do.”

That’s more than enough for me to file Doug in the “unreliable narrator” category, though it’s good of him to list what must be all the brothers (I didn’t count) in the book’s initial pages. A few: Barry, “the good doctor of medicine,” whose supplies Doug will steal; Sergio the “caustic graphomaniac;” and Spencer, “the spook with known ties to the State Department.” Things start to go terribly wrong when Maxwell, recently returned from collecting botanical specimens in Costa Rica, has medical difficulty, necessitating assistance from Barry the good doctor… only to be filmed by Spencer, who’s an annoyingly intrepid documentary filmmaker for whom nothing is private.

With so many dozens of brothers, there’s a broad spectrum of professions and fears… and the brothers do all sorts of odd and illicit things in the stacks of the family library after they’ve eaten their pork chops:

Elsewhere people came and went, played card games and chess, tended to one another’s injuries, chased the bats. These men’s lives seemed, for the moment, untouched by far. But I did not envy them. I felt the way humans must have felt in earlier times, at the dawn of our history, when the world was alive with primitive dangers and life depended for preservation on the graces and fancies of hateful gods.

Enter the Corn King, a sacrificial character Doug plays during each annual dinner because, damn it, sacrifice and abasement are, according to Doug (and probably millions of other people) the essence of family get-togethers. The brothers have always hurt each other and now they carry knives and hunt Doug down in the library, too, with Dobermans watching and bats circling. What more can I say? This is my kind of book about family gatherings, ties, and rituals. I’d have loved it even if there hadn’t been bats.

Up Next: Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur Le Commandant and Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, both of which I also enjoyed.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Two Quick Words: Police and Theft

It’s rare that I write about a book the week it hits the New York Times bestseller list but here goes… Jo Nesbø’s Police, which I read in Don Bartlett’s translation of the original Norwegian Politi, is described on the title page as “A Harry Hole Novel.” Meaning Police continues a series of novels about Harry Hole, a gruff, hard-boiled Oslo police detective. I’d be hard-boiled, too, if so many of my co-workers were murdered: they get killed off at such a rate in Police it’s a wonder anyone’s left by the end of the book.

Police is my first Nesbø book and it left me pretty indifferent. I enjoy a good detective novel but Police felt a little too twitchy and manic, shifting from plotline to plotline, character to character. I realize the furtiveness felt magnified because I haven’t read any of Nesbø’s previous novels about Harry Hole and his colleagues—always a danger with series novels—but, sorry, I think books ought to stand alone a little better than this if they’re sold alone. When Police finally settled down and began exploring character as the characters continued to explore a series of killings, I enjoyed it more, though the series of plot twists is such that mentioning relevant specifics would pretty much spoil the book for anyone intending to read it… not that those spoilers would really come as much of a surprise. Even at its best, Police still didn’t feel like much more than a typical hard-edged detective novel that could take place just about anywhere in the world. There was even a reference to Breaking Bad. Shrug.

If I were using food metaphors—and why not?—then Police is the Starbucks coffee and institutional-tasting chocolate cupcake I ate a couple weeks ago while traveling, you know, that standard junky snack you can buy anywhere to satisfy a certain craving even if you know you won’t love it. By contrast, Peter Carey’s Theft is a tasty soufflé with a glass of wine and a fun friend: light, laugh-inducing, and atmospherically memorable. Theft is narrated by two Australian brothers, both troubled in their own ways: Michael Boone is an artist who’s done time and Hugh Boone is younger, larger (at 220 pounds), and living in Michael’s care because he’s not, as they say, all there.

The (new) troubles start when Michael (a.k.a. Butcher) meets Marlene Leibovitz, who turns up at his (borrowed) house… it turns out Marlene’s the daughter-in-law of one of Michael’s favorite painters. And then we start in on forgery, thefts (art and even one of Hugh’s folding chairs he uses to sit on the street), other forms of deception, trips to Tokyo and New York, murder, and so on. What makes Theft so much fun is Carey’s combination of undependable narrative voices: Michael, mostly serious and mostly in love with the sneaky Marlene, and Hugh, quirky, perceptive about his brother’s relationship, and often using ALL CAPS to emphasize his points. All this fits together in a way that addresses questions of truth(iness) and its versions, the nature of art, and, of course, all sorts of relationships, many of them triangular. And who gets the last laugh.

Disclaimers and disclosures: I received a copy of Police from publisher Alfred A. Knopf, thank you!

Up next: Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond and MacDonald Harris’s The Carp Castle. And Pitigrilli’s Cocaine.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Making Up For Lost Time: A Month in the Country & Two Others

This has been a strange summer for reading: lots of work, lots of abandoned books, and lots of distraction from travel and big changes in the weather. To get caught up on past reading, here are quick summaries of three books I’ve read (and even finished!) over the last month or so: I enjoyed all three, albeit in very different ways, though, hmm, I can’t help but notice that all three books are first-person narratives with very strong voices.

My favorite of the bunch, by far, was J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, a lovely and lively short novel about a World War 1 veteran, Tom Birkin, who goes to Oxgodby, Yorkshire, to restore a mural in an old country church. Of course Birkin restores himself from the trauma of the war in the process but the book didn’t feel predictable at all, thanks to small twists, like a hint of madness in a lovely local lady, Birkin’s feelings about religion and faith, and an organ-shopping expedition. I particularly enjoyed some of the descriptions of Birkin’s work, like these lines I found when I opened the book at random:

It was a splendid medieval gallery—nearest me, an almost Spanish head of the stricken Christ caught amid the leaves of a gallows tree; further along, a golliwog devil thrusting his grinning head between a couple trapped in the wrong bed; finally, a plump woman holding a blue shield of lilies. It proved what every church-crawler knows—there’s always something of surpassing interest in any elderly building if you keep looking.

I’d recommend A Month in the Country to just about anyone. I’d recommend Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel, which I read in Bill Johnston’s translation from the original Polish Pod Mocnym Aniołem most to readers who enjoy Eastern European novels about drinking: Pilch’s not-so-angelic narrator, Jerzy (hmm…), tells tales of life as a rehab recidivist. He tells the tales of (and for) others on the ward, too. No novel about drinking is complete without references to Venedikt Yerofeev’s Moscow-Petushki, a.k.a. Moscow to the End of the Line, and Pilch fits Venya in early on, on page 11, when Jerzy mentions some teetotalling days:

“Why on earth don’t you drink?” my brothers sitting at the bar would ask, and they were angry, and the ghost of Venedikt Erofeev hovered over their heads, and their volitionless tongues spoke with his tongue, and I wrote down a few lines under his influence, and having paid homage, I released myself from his influence.

The language of Johnston’s translation, both in terms of vocabulary and cadences, is lots of fun to read; it feels like it was fun to translate, too. Finally, Ben H. Winters’s Countdown City, the second book in a planned trilogy about pre-apocalyptic America, narrated by an ex-cop living in New Hampshire, didn’t catch me as much as the first book, The Last Policeman (previous post), which won an Edgar Award earlier this year, but it still kept me turning pages, waiting for the end of the world with Hank Palace. This time around, Palace investigates the disappearance of Martha Milano’s husband: Martha babysat Palace and his sister when they were kids. Winters again looks, through the low-key and methodically responsible Palace, at questions of moral duty, wondering, among other things, who has the right to track down the missing when the end of the world is imminent. Winters includes some nice uses of a favorite word, “rummage.”

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I bought my copy of A Month in the Country; I am collaborating on a translation that will be published in a collection from New York Review Books, which published A Month in the Country. I received a copy of The Mighty Angel from publisher Open Letter Books; I always enjoy talking about translations (and not only!) with Open Letter. And I received two copies of Countdown City from Quirk Books… and gave the second copy to my local library. Thank you to all!

Up Next: Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, which I’m loving… I have so many promising-looking new releases from publishers and used books from the library book sale that I’m not sure what will come after that…

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Mongolia: Tea of Ulaanbaatar

Christopher R. Howard’s Tea of Ulaanbaatar is, hmm, a gritty account of a Peace Corps volunteer’s life in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Writing “life and work” just doesn’t seem to fit here because Warren, our anti-hero, doesn’t appear to spend much time at his job teaching English: he’s too busy going to bars, spending time with his Mongolian girlfriend, and (ab)using tsus, a red tea rumored to inspire all sorts of madness.

Though Tea of Ulaanbaatar doesn’t quite feel fully realized, it does some things very well. Howard succeeds nicely at showing the disaffection of Warren and his fellow Peace Corps volunteers, most of whom seem to be engaged in ongoing attempts to escape something or somebody, whether through travel or tea. They are a grotesque lot, led by Samantha, the over-mascaraed and overwrought medical officer for the Peace Corps who oversees the volunteers. And then there’s the atmosphere: urban decay, moral decay, discos, desperation (public and private), and, of course, crime. Oh, and Warren is phobic about germs. Very phobic. He scrubs and he’s a little obsessed with the bubonic plague.

It’s more difficult to explain what didn’t quite come together in Tea of Ulaanbaatar. The nihilism and nastiness seemed real enough but the appearance of the criminal aspect of the book—which begins with the idea of exporting lots of tsus to the United States—felt a bit too much like an attempt to amp up the book with action. Some elements, particularly the grotesqueness, the hallucinations (or realities?), and Warren’s memories of a girlfriend, felt a little too easy. Still, I have to give Howard credit for writing such a vivid book. Tea of Ulaanbaatar is apparently based, to some degree, on Howard’s own experiences: according to the bio on the book, Howard “spent a few months of an aborted Peace Corps sojourn in Mongolia in the late 1990s.”

Up Next: Mihail Sebastian’s The Accident then Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and Jerzy Pilch’s The Mighty Angel. I have quite a few books piled up, particularly after skipping last week because I grated off the tip of my finger and couldn’t type!

Monday, December 31, 2012

Fire: Fahrenheit 451 and The Book Thief

I first read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 a long time ago, probably in high school: about all I remembered until last week was that firemen started fires rather than preventing them. And their specialty was burning books, which were outlawed.

Same as mine.
Price: $1.25 
When Ray Bradbury died earlier this year and I read, a little later, Russian fiction that referred to him, I took out my old copy of Fahrenheit 451. The glue in the binding cracked and the pages were yellowed, but the story itself felt ridiculously up-to-the-minute, despite having been written in the fifties. The biggest surprise was that Bradbury all but predicted reality TV, viewers’ extreme attachment to TV characters they think of as family, and viewers’ extreme attachment to their TV parlors and equipment. Even Christ has become one of the TV family, making, as one character says, “veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshiper absolutely needs.”

The personal stories of Guy Montag, the fireman who begins collecting books and doubting his work, and his TV-addled wife Millie, felt secondary to me compared to Bradbury’s dystopian world, where people drive so super-fast that billboards are super-long and people no longer listen to each other because their TV friends seem realer than their real friends.

[Now, watch out for spoilers…] Montag’s sudden, fiery separation from his job and his wife are less surprising than the fact that his escape is carefully tracked and presented by the media. Even more interesting, though, is that Montag finds readers—some are former professors—who memorize books so they can recite them. This reminded me of Soviet-era samizdat (self-publishing, often on a typewriter) and memorization of forbidden poems. The idea of carrying books around in one’s head, combined with the pictures of future TV and the relative peace outside the city (there’s also a war going on…) made the book well worth rereading.

I read another book involving book burning—Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief—but it’s set in the past, Nazi Germany, instead of the future. The Book Thief is probably as familiar these days as Fahrenheit 451 so I won’t go into detail... you probably already know, for example, that Death narrates this thick novel about a girl named Liesel Meminger who goes to live with a foster family in a town called Molching. I very rarely read young adult books but this one caught me, probably because I thought Zusak made a wise choice in making Death his first-person narrator. For one thing, as an omnipresent and omnipotent narrator, Death can offer, occasionally and a bit officiously, historical details that readers might or might not already know. But Death (the narrator) is also surprisingly compassionate and humorous, as is Zusak’s book, thanks to characters like Liesel the book thief, her accordion-playing foster father Hans, and her friend Rudy who reveres Jesse Owens, a dangerous habit in Nazi Germany.

Up Next: Quim Monzó’s A Thousand Morons.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is that annoyingly near-perfect book that I admire tremendously for its technical qualities but can’t quite find myself loving because it feels too hermetically sealed. I’m sure you already know about the book: it won a Pulitzer, a National Book Critics Circle award, and lots of other honors. And one chapter of the book is written and presented in PowerPoint form.

A Visit from the Goon Squad strings thirteen stories, one of which is written in PowerPoint form, though you already knew that, into a novel that zigs and zags between characters and times, returning often to two core figures. Bennie is described on the back cover as “an aging former punk rocker and record executive.” Sasha is “the passionate, troubled young woman he employs.” Put in more direct terms: as a kid, Bennie was in a band called The Flaming Dildos, which I take as a name that refers to fakery and imitations of, ah, more real things, and Sasha is a klepto who loves to keep and display what she steals.

During the course of the book, Egan introduces us to those same Flaming Dildos, a bunch of San Francisco teenagers, including Bennie, who want to be punks, and shows us how they and the people around them behave and age, not always very gracefully. Time is the goon squad here and Egan neatly threads this and other motifs, like Sasha’s stolen goods, through the stories. Conformism and its “non” are everywhere, too: Bennie and his friends aren’t much punkier than I was. Sure, I went to see the Dead Kennedys when a friend decided to be a punk promoter one summer but my spikes were really a bracelet, not something dangerous.

“Neatly” is my problem with A Visit from the Goon Squad: I enjoyed reading the book, looked forward to reading it, and think it’s very, very good, but it feels a little too much like how Bennie hears digitized music:
Too clear, too clean. The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead.
The italics are Egan’s. And the voices in Goon Squad were a little digitized for me, not quite gritty or distinct enough to make some of the chapter-stories in Goon Squad feel fully polyphonic or convincing. One of the most interesting chapter-stories was “Selling the General,” which connects less to Bennie and Sasha than most of the other pieces and describes the efforts of Dolly (a.k.a. La Doll), a p.r. specialist attempting to improve the image of a dictator. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the story is less connected and less music-related than most of the others.

The final story-chapter, “Pure Language,” set in a future New York City, imagines even more ubiquitous uses of mobile devices and txt language than we have now (*shudder*) but the hero is the guy without an online presence, “a guy who had lived in the cracks all these years, forgotten and full of rage, in a way that now registered as pure. Untouched.” And there, again, is my misgiving about the book, a misgiving that feels slight and churlish: the book lacks real rage. That may be intentional but I can’t be sure because the book felt so polished, so cleanly written and so careful, even a tiny bit high-flown. In other words, it felt technically perfect but most of the tone and language felt so smooth—too controlled, digitized, and ironic—that they crowded out the book’s messages and characters for me.

Disclosures: I bought my own copy of the book. I met Jennifer Egan, a college classmate I never knew in college, at a reading in Portland several years ago. I’ve read and enjoyed most of her books, particularly Look at Me.

Up Next: Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer, another book of linked stories.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

More Fiction with Finnish: A Fool’s Paradise and We Sinners

Anita Konkka’s A Fool’s Paradise, which I read in A.D. Haun and Owen Witesman’s translation of the Finnish original Hullun taivaassa, and Hanna Pylväinen’s We Sinners share more than Finnish ancestry: structurally, both books link vignettes or stories into novels, and both books offer straightforward writing and rather bleak, atmospheric pictures of loneliness. 

I read A Fool’s Paradise first, enjoying Konkka’s first-person narrator’s dark humor: her storyteller is an unemployed young woman who’s involved with a married man and enjoys referring to Russian literature and writers. In the first chapter, she has a stone from Pasternak’s grave in her pocket. The woman’s accounts of her life, much of which isn’t particularly interesting in term of activity, read, to me, like a stream of vignettes, often incorporating observations about strangers and descriptions of dreams. “Our life passes in sleeping and waiting,” she says. She also says her only duty in society is to report to the unemployment office.

It’s Konkka’s use of detail—a bird flying into a room, a gypsy on a ferry, childhood memories of learning about Yuri Gagarin—and tone, as conveyed by Haun and Witesman, that made A Fool’s Paradise so strangely engaging for me. Here’s an example:
A young man is distributing leaflets in front of the K-Market and asks whether I believe in Jesus. No woman has ever asked me that. Perhaps they’ve agreed that men will save women and women save men, since people are more responsive to the allure of the opposite sex.
Repentance and sin are, as promised by the title, a crucial element of We Sinners, a novel-in-stories that chronicles the lives of the Rovaniemis, a family of Finnish descent living in the U.S. that has nine children. The Rovaniemis are Laestadian Lutherans who aren’t allowed to watch movies or TV, go to school dances, use makeup, or drink alcohol. Among other things. Of course they break the rules a lot, and several of the Rovaniemi children leave the church during the course of the book. One of the younger Rovaniemis sums up the church this way, “It’s a kind of Lutheranism where everyone is much more hung up on being Lutheran than all the other normal Lutherans. End of story.”

All those rules and alleged deprivations (I love life without a TV!), along with the expected transgressions from all manner of sinners, were less interesting for me than Pylväinen’s grace in structuring the book, her debut novel. She tells the family’s story chronologically, economically covering a couple decades in under 200 pages by carrying threads from one story to another. In the first story, children get chicken pox and their father, Warren, may be offered the job of pastor at their church… Pylväinen starts the second story by letting the reader know what happened for Warren.

Pylväinen also creates an interesting illusion with her story-chapters, many of which focus on a key episode in one character’s life with references to other family members. The characters—from father Warren, who grits his teeth from anger until a crown breaks, to Brita, a daughter whose first press of the keys on her new piano is silent—are members of a crowded family living in a crowded house but they often feel tragically alone in their anger, disappointment, and relative poverty. Much of the siblings’ interaction comes through solidarity in leaving or staying with the church.

Two scenes involving the mother, Pirjo, especially stuck with me. In the first, her discovery (at the movies!) that one of her sons is gay seemed especially alienating for everyone involved, “She felt slapped, she felt rejected, she felt like he had looked at the life she had made for him and he had spit on it.” So much for forgiveness. Toward the end of the book, Pirjo tells one of her daughters over the phone, “We’re here to remind you of what is right. We know you know in your hearts what the right thing is, of course we know you know that—” But then her daughter cuts her off, yelling, “Assholes!”

Up Next: Seven Days by Deon Meyer.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of We Sinners from publisher Henry Holt, thank you!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Are the Odds? Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman is a new type of mashup novel for writer Ben H. Winters, co-author of such titles as Android Karenina and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters: in The Last Policeman, Winters sets a murder mystery in pre-apocalyptic Concord, New Hampshire, creating a suspenseful and thoughtful combination of crime and natural disaster that asks refreshingly everyday existential questions of everyday people.

Winters’s narrator is Hank Palace, a police detective who insists on investigating an apparent suicide—the dead man is a “hanger” whose body is found in a McDonald’s men’s room—because his instincts tell him something isn’t right. “A man is dead,” he says. Of course people die all the time, hangers are common in Concord, and everybody in The Last Policeman is going to die in fairly short order. They’re counting down the months until an asteroid known as Maia will hit. For me, the acceleration of everyone’s demise—and the reactions it produces—is the source of the appeal of a full-on literary natural disaster like Maia. An asteroid is the ultimate unexpected guest who walks in on a static dinner party (or state capital) and changes everything.

It’s Palace’s practical, calm, and consistent voice that makes The Last Policeman work. Palace is a relatively softboiled guy in a pretty hardboiled world, though he began experiencing the trauma of unlikely events as a child, he lives alone, and he loves being a cop. Given the importance of the asteroid, unlikely events and long odds are a big theme in the book. Here’s Palace on the odds: 
But that’s how it works: no matter what the odds of a given event, that one-in-whatever-it-is has to come in at some point or it wouldn’t be a one-in-whatever chance. It would be zero.
The dead man, by the way, worked in insurance, an odds-based industry that’s not a great line of work when the world’s about to end. Of course much more than the insurance industry has collapsed in The Last Policeman: people go “bucket list” to fulfill their worldly dreams, ignite themselves, perpetuate conspiracy theories, take to drugs, stockpile weapons, and slack off at work. But not Palace:
Still, the conscientious detective is obliged to examine the question of motive in a new light, to place it within the matrix of our present unusual circumstance. The end of the world changes everything, from a law-enforcement perspective.
A little later, Palace, an observer of the social contract, notes the continuing responsibilities of cops, saying the public relies on them. And he laments later that the asteroid becomes “an excuse for poor conduct.”

Winters shows us plenty of poor conduct but he also shows us people like Palace who keep on with their lives, solving crimes, serving up eggs, and making espresso. Winters has a light hand in The Last Policeman, balancing humor, darkness, and pathos, offering up lines that made me laugh then sigh. Here’s a female cop telling Palace about chasing someone: “…you know, Palace, this is it. This is the last chance I get to run after a perp yelling, “Stop, motherfucker.”

The Last Policeman, which will be released July 10, 2012, is the first novel in a planned trilogy.

Disclaimers & disclosures: I received a review copy of The Last Policeman from Quirk Books, from Eric Smith, whom I’ve enjoyed seeing at BookExpo America, and who’s a friend on Facebook. Thank you!

Up Next: Riikka Pulkkinen’s True... I’m glad to be back to my usual reading routine after a busy spring!

Monday, January 16, 2012

The -Morphoses, Meta- and Meow-

What is it with me and Czech absurdity? I loved the nasty humor in Ludvík Vaculík’s The Guinea Pigs (previous post) and Patrick Ouředník’s Case Closed (previous post), and now here I am with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), which I first read, in Stanley Corngold’s translation, in high school. Warning: this post contains spoilers.

Rereading The Metamorphosis makes me wonder about my teenage fascination with the book. Namely: Did I fear waking up and thinking, like Gregor Samsa, the story’s protagonist, that I’m a giant beetle? And that I will dry up and drop dead, lonely, alienated, and shut away in my room? Or did I identify with Gregor’s younger sister, Grete, a not-so-skilled violin player who grows weary of the burden of having a coleopteran brother? Another option: I felt guilty about my enjoyment of collecting insects in sixth grade, feeling remorse after a June bug that revived itself in my hand when I attempted to take it out of the kill jar.

This time around, I did something responsible mental health professionals should discourage: I simultaneously read The Metamorphosis and two of Nikolai Gogol’s St. Petersburg stories, one of which is called “The Nose,” in honor of the breathing apparatus of a man who wakes up missing his nose, only to discover it walking the streets. In uniform. Though the stories made my delicate psyche a bit uncomfortable, the unintentional parallel reading was instructive: Gogol’s stories—like The Metamorphosis, in which poor Gregor awakes from “unsettling dreams”—involve fog and dreaminess, too. Alongside the clashes of reality and dream I also found clashes of ideas/artists/writers with plodding/philistines/bureaucrats. To quote Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature piece about The Metamorphosis, “The Samsa family around the fantastic insect is nothing else than mediocrity surrounding genius.”

I think this interpretation nicely complements a passage from Kafka’s diary, dated August 6, 1914, that Corngold quotes in the introduction to his translation:

“What will be my fate as a writer is very simple. My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner self has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle.”

This state rather resembles Gregor’s and complements Nabokov’s discussion of The Metamorphosis as a fantasy, a version of the world unlike usual reality if reality is a composite picture of the world. Though Nabokov mentions that characters like Gregor try to escape dull everyday lives—and, for Gregor, his bedroom—he writes little of freedom, which rates a few mentions in The Metamorphosis. Gregor enjoys looking out his window, “evidently in some sort of remembrance of the feeling of freedom he used to have from looking out the window.” Later, the nasty Grete, reduced to “his sister,” discusses the identity of the bug in the other room—a bug that Nabokov has helpfully reminded us is “just over three feet long”—saying:

“But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that it isn’t possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will.”

But how could a three-foot beetle like Gregor just walk or even fly away, particularly after being injured by his own father? The human—or coleopteran—condition is absurd indeed. The only solution Gregor sees is to disappear. Which he does, shortly after three in the morning, after a “state of empty and peaceful reflection” that doesn’t resemble his unsettling dreams in the beginning of the book. Thus ends Gregor’s life and Gregor’s metamorphosis. I don’t remember finding the ending of The Metamorphosis so sad in past readings but Gregor seemed, to borrow again from Nabokov, especially “tragically absurd” this time. I suspect this was partly due to the effect of the contrast with a more comical brand of absurdity… including the afore-mentioned Case Closed and Guinea Pigs.

I followed The Metamorphosis with something more comically absurd: The Meowmorphosis, a Quirk Classic authored by Franz Kafka and Coleridge Cook. In this version of Kafka’s tale, Gregor awakens to find that he “had been changed into an adorable kitten.” This Gregor wants to knead the coverlet… and wonders how he “should reorganize his life from scratch.” Much of The Meowmorphosis replicates The Metamorphosis, albeit with changes that transform Gregor yet again—from insect to feline and from ugly to cute—but Cook inserts a long passage in the middle of the book, in which Gregor leaves his room for the streets and meets some other cats who have undergone metamorphoses of their own. I won’t reveal too much but will say that Gregor is put on trial by a cat known as Josef K., which brought me back to reading Kafka’s The Trial (Der Process) in college.

Cook also includes mentions of “writer issues” that segue into a humorous but very topical discussion of cats and dogs that begins with this: “Psychiatry is a dog’s profession, not a cat’s—a cat thinks what he thinks and that is all.” A bit later the cat says, “What we desire, we perform, and that is what is meant by freedom.” He goes on to admit that “cats know they are monsters and have no particular qualms about it…” Of course poor Gregor, whom the other cats have vilified for obeying his family, has to return home to close the story properly. “They are family and must endure me,” he tells himself, thinking they will take care of him. If only!

The Meowmorphosis was a fun way to cool down a bit after Gogol and Kafka; though Gregor faces the same sad end in both books, I certainly appreciated the comical absurdity and irony of Gregor turning into a cute and fuzzy (albeit rather large) animal instead of an ugly bug. Though you could read The Meowmorphosis without having read Kafka, I think Meow- probably has maximum enjoyment potential for those who’ve read Meta-.

Up next: Undecided.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of The Meowmorphosis from Quirk Books, from Eric Smith, whom I enjoyed meeting at BookExpo America in 2011. Thank you! Eric (who’s a friend on Facebook) also sent me a Meowmorphosis poster that I hung in the bathroom, much to the surprise of at least one dinner guest. Also: I met and chatted with the writer known as Coleridge Cook at a literary event.

Image credit: Coleopteran collage from Bugboy52.40, via Wikipedia. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

More Czech Absurdity: Ouředník’s Case Closed

It would be an overstatement to say that I didn’t understand Patrick Ouředník’s Case Closed (translated from the original Ad Acta by Alex Zucker)… but it would also be an overstatement to say that I know, for sure, for definite, what Ouředník wanted to say in this book about, ostensibly, some criminal acts and investigations. The book feels a little mixed up to me, with, perhaps, one too many subplots and thematic threads for its 143 short pages, but Case Closed is so funny—thanks to that Eastern European absurdity I love so much—that I was more than happy to just read along and laugh, writing ha ha in my margins. Which may, I think, be the point…

The most central character in Case Closed is one Viktor Dyk, a grumpy retiree who collects beetles, has written a forgotten novel, and generally dislikes people. He also loves inserting invented information into conversation:

“Dyk had a habit of pulling pronouncements out of his noggin and dressing them up with fraudulent, usually biblical, sources. Long ago he had come to realize that repeating what someone else had once said was considered the utmost expression of intelligence in his country.”

Viktor, who’s been something of a ladies’ man, also loves analyzing the personals. A piece:

“None of them were attractive, but plenty of them had been told they were attractive, or were of athletic build (great, a discus thrower…). COME INTO MY VOICE MAIL, as one ad was headed, struck Dyk as near pornographic.”

I also got some good laughs about Viktor’s love of taking public transportation at rush hour so he can knock people on the shins with his cane. And belch, releasing odors.

Ouředník doesn’t limit himself to describing Dyk’s misanthropy: he also discusses language. Throughout the novel, Ouředník slips in lines like “For Dyk, Jr., though, it was further proof that language was useless, being utterly unfit for interpersonal communication.” Ouředník obligingly offers up, as proof, conversations with miscommunication. From another angle, we learn that writing’s not all Papa Dyk might have wanted since, “Writing novels turned out to be much less fun than collecting beetles.” And we read that novels and life are similar. The narrator says, “We began this story with no clear aim or preconceived idea,” and the thought thread about novels culminates, later, with this:

“By now our readers have definitively understood that they definitively understood nothing: what could be a more sensible conclusion to our novel that than? Acceptance of fate, acceptance of one’s lot, acceptance of one’s imperfection. How simple, how biblical!”

That is, of course, my favorite kind of inconclusive conclusion about books and life. I just want to add two things… First, there once lived a man named Viktor Dyk who was a poet and conservative politician. (See photo.) Second, I loved reading Alex Zucker’s energetic translation, which contains lots of word play. The translation has a nice balance of risk and the feeling that Zucker is in control of his material.

Also, a quick note on The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar, which Harper released last week. The World We Found tells the story of friends, four women and two men, who went to college together in Bombay during the 1970s. They discuss a reunion of the four women when one of them, now living in the U.S., is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Though the novel contains some touching passages about relationships and the end of life, over all it felt predictable, even clichéd, particularly in the main plot line, in which one woman’s Muslim husband doesn’t want her to travel to visit her friend. I thought the interactions between the two man were the most interesting aspect of the book. Despite those misgivings, I should add that The World We Found was ideal reading when I was sick with a holiday cold.

Up Next: The Metamorphosis and The Meowmorphosis. Side note: I have to wonder if Dyk’s beetle collecting has anything to do with Kafka...

Disclosures: Thank you very much to Harper for sending me a review copy of The World We Found.

Image credit: Dezidor, via Wikipedia.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Favorite Books from 2011’s Reading

Naming this year’s reading favorites didn’t require (m)any hard choices: my top two books of 2011 were both so enjoyable, so perfect for my reading taste—which seems paradoxical since they are stylistically so very different—that I barely had to look over the year’s posts to be sure I knew what I was choosing. Here you go:

Favorite book originally written in English: John Williams’s Stoner (previous post) is beautifully written and structured, a neat novel about messy emotional lives.

Favorite book translated into English: Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog(previous post), translated from the German original by Ross Benjamin, is a wonderful book about life, death, and memory. Benjamin’s translation made me eager to read his translation of Joseph Roth’s Job, patiently waiting on my shelf.

A few other books stood out for various reasons:

Favorite twisted humor: Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude (previous post), with a main character called Miss Roach, and Ludvík Vaculík’s The Guinea Pigs (translated by Káča Pláčková from the original Czech) (previous post), with a main character who throws rocks at his own kids, were both filled with strange scenes and twists.

Favorite memorable scene: I especially loved the vivid carnivalesque Thursday dance night scene toward the end of Dawn Powell’s Dance Night (previous post)…

I wish everyone a happy, healthy 2012 that brings many new favorite books!

Up next: I’m not sure…

Disclaimers. The usual. A repeated thank you to those who sent me books mentioned in this post: Regal Literary (Funeral for a Dog), my bookstore friend (Slaves of Solitude), and Open Letter (The Guinea Pigs). Further disclaimer information is on each referenced page cited here.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.