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.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vonnegut, that Zany Sad Guy: And So It Goes

Charles J. Shields’s And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life tells the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., story in a way that makes Vonnegut’s life feel like a strangely everyday epic, making Vonnegut, to borrow a term from Russian literature, a hero of his time, someone emblematic of his generation. Vonnegut’s life, lived 1922 to 2007, was touched by the Great Depression (diminished family status), World War II (prisoner of war), the Vietnam War and the 1960s (opposition to the war), and the contradictions of fame and celebrity culture (writing about himself but alleging to want peace and quiet).

Shields draws Vonnegut as a pretty unpleasant guy: he cheated on his wives, didn’t seem to know how to relate to his kids, and created some uncomfortable situations with his business associates. Despite—or maybe, in part, because of?—all that, my high school memories of reading two or three of his novels are a feeling of something zany, something that’s funny, antic, and weird, with a strong dose of desperation. (Credit on “zany”: a big thanks to Mitt Romney for calling Newt Gingrich “zany” last week.)

I read And So It Goes because I wondered if Shields might help explain why I’m so content to leave those high school memories alone, to leave my Vonnegut boxed set on the shelf and not try to finish the books I couldn’t bring myself to finish back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And Shields did: he quotes Vonnegut himself on reasons he appeals to a youth market. Here’s a longer version of what Vonnegut said in a 1973 interview with Playboy that is reprinted in William Rodney Allen’s Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut:

…I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard as settled. I talk about what is God like, what could He want, is there a heaven, and, if there is, what would it be like? This is what college sophomores are into; these are the questions they enjoy having discussed. And more mature people find these subjects very tiresome, as though they’re settled.

Shields writes, a little later, that Vonnegut’s books offer young readers “their first exposure to existential despair,” and on the next page he calls Vonnegut “a reluctant adult.” I think I’d be giving myself far too much credit to say I sensed that as a teenager: I certainly wouldn’t say that my thinking in high school was more advanced than Vonnegut’s typical college sophomore (his statement strikes me as ridiculously condescending toward the people who made him rather rich) but I wonder now if Vonnegut’s use of goofy names and science fiction tropes began feeling gimmicky to me even as tender highschooler.

For the record, my favorite Vonnegut book was the non-sci fi Breakfast of Champions, which I read several times in high school, though I remember little beyond character names—who could forget “Kilgore Trout”?—line drawings, a zany darkness, and Trout’s experience coating his feet in plastic by walking in a contaminated body of water. (I confess: I confirmed that last memory using Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature; see page 229.)

Shields’s book covers Vonnegut’s life from his not-so-happy childhood, when he felt overshadowed by his science-oriented brother, through his not-so-happy advanced age, when he liked to sit on a bench near the United Nations with a Lhasa apso named Flour, “doing nothing, just people watching.” The book left me feeling sad about all that not-so-happiness (even if, per Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way)… and fully ready, yes, happy, to set aside my Vonnegut books for the duration.

Despite the sadness, I enjoyed reading And So It Goes: I thought Shields did a nice job linking Vonnegut’s individual history to world events. And I particularly enjoyed his chapter on Vonnegut’s time at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop; Shields describes the workshop method and the reasons for Vonnegut’s popularity as a teacher. Another favorite tidbit from the book: Vonnegut’s first wife, Jane, who studied Russian literature, selected The Brothers Karamazov for him to read on their honeymoon. What a way to start a marriage!

Disclosure: Thank you very much to publisher Henry Holt for a review copy of And So It Goes.

Up Next: Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Paint It White: Khoury’s White Masks

Elias Khoury’s White Masks, translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet, is an intriguing book, a novel composed of narratives referencing aspects of the Lebanese civil war, told by people whose lives intersected with a murder victim found in a pile of garbage. The stories in White Masks felt both emotional and matter-of-fact, almost like confessions.

Khoury draws these disparate stories together using an old technique: a curious journalist conducts interviews. The journalist admits in his introduction and epilogue that readers may not value his efforts much. At the start, for example, he tells us, “The information I’ve been able to collect about the deceased is highly contradictory.” At the end, he tells us,

An astute reader will probably consider it a waste of time to read stories everyone knows about, while another kind of reader will think that there are better and more exciting stories than this one. And they’d both be right, and so would you, and so would each and every one of us… as likely as it could be your fault, it could be ours, it could be anyone’s, or everyone’s… And truth is indivisible, they say!

In my reading of White Masks, this all makes plenty of sense, except, of course “waste of time.” Storytellers aren’t reliable, all our stories repeat, war is hell, life and death are mysterious and unknowable, and every story told is somehow a truth.

The first interviewee, Noha Jaber, widow of Khalil Ahmad Jaber (the deceased), stresses stories near the start of her chapter, saying, “We’ve turned into a story, a tale people tell.” She later amends that, saying, “What can I tell you, we’d become a story, a mirror.” I thought Noha’s story was one of the most interesting in the book, with descriptions of her son, Ahmad, his death, and Khalil’s reactions: Khalil first hangs posters of Ahmad around town but later takes to erasing Ahmad’s face from newspaper clippings.

Other interviewees offer stories about their marriages, death at war and in the city, apocalyptic-sounding garbage piles, and more whitening and erasing. There’s also an autopsy report. And accounts of two men who lose body parts, an eye and an arm. Pain, loss, and chaos, both verbal and social, are the common threads in White Masks, and what sticks in my mind is a composite sound of keening and a picture of the erased face of a dead man, an emptiness that could be filled with another’s image.

I wrote at the start of this post that I found Khoury’s book “intriguing”… and I’m still not sure how else I’d describe it. It’s a book I never considered abandoning despite huge doses of pain and the thematic drawbacks the journalist himself mentions. A murder mystery with uncomfortable scenes that lacks a solution or a villain—war, unrest, and social decay feel horribly abstract and unsatisfying—doesn’t sound very appealing even if it reflects real life and death better than a detective novel where the killer gets a life sentence. I suspect I found in Khoury’s techniques—particularly his ordered literary chaos—an interesting and affecting counterpoint to my all-time favorite book, War and Peace, which, though a far happier book, also contains an artful mixture of order and disorder, war and home front, and twisted truths.

For more: Paul Doyle’s piece about White Masks on The Quarterly Conversation.

Up next: Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature and Charles J. Shields’s And So It Goes, about Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I’m not big on biographies but this one sounded interesting, particularly given my love for Vonnegut’s books when I was a highschooler.

Disclosures: Thank you to Archipelago Books for the review copy and to Amy Henry, an Archipelago ambassador, for introducing me to Archipelago. I’m looking forward to reading my other Archipelago titles.

Image credit: Paks, via stock.xchng.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Su Tong’s Boat to Redemption

Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, is a peculiar novel about a young man, Ku Dongliang, who lives on a riverboat with his father, a former government official whose “lifestyle” problems—affairs—raise rancor that separates him from his wife, forcing his teenage son to choose a life on land or water. The novel takes place during the Cultural Revolution, and Su Tong incorporates lots of references to propaganda and politics, usually pairing them with absurdity: another source of problems for Ku Dongliang’s father, for example, is that he thinks he’s the descendant of a revolutionary martyr but he lacks the proper fish-shaped birthmark on his butt to prove it.

The Boat to Redemption is one of the first novels—perhaps even the first novel?—I’ve read that was translated from the Chinese, so I was grateful to find parallels to Russian fiction that also uses absurd angles to portray the strange realities of life and language under authoritarian governments. Su Tong draws sharp contrasts between the public and the private, combining lots of below-the-waist humor with ridiculous regulations, such as forcing riverboat workers to spend their time on shore with escorts. My favorite line in the book is a slogan in a public men’s restroom. This is surely wisdom to remember: “One small step closer to the urinal is a great leap for civilization.” Speaking of public bathrooms, Ku Dongliang realizes he’s growing up when he notices that the walls in the men’s room seem shorter.

Su Tong also shows Ku Dongliang’s growth through his obsession with a younger girl, Huixian, who lives on the riverboat for several years after her mother disappears. After Huixian leaves the boat to play the role of a revolutionary in political events, Ku Dongliang keeps track of her so closely that “stalking” might be an appropriate word. This portion of the book is especially humorous and sad, again emphasizing differences between private and collective, river and shore. Su Tong also uses lots of nicknames for characters (“Rotten Rapeseed” particularly stood out) and incorporates what sound like Chinese proverbs into their speech. I’m sure I missed out on a boatload of cultural references.

The Boat to Redemption won the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2011. For better or worse, the version of the book that Goldblatt translated and that was published in the U.K. by Doubleday and just appeared in the U.S. from Overlook is apparently not the final draft of the book that was published in Chinese. And, as often happens with translations, the title was changed: evidently a more direct translation of the title would have been River, Shore. I can’t help but agree with the blog Musings of a Literary Dilettante, which explains the situation, that the book we read doesn’t feel as “polished” as it might or should—I thought the book lacked transitions and balance even before I learned about the later draft—and that the original, less zingy title would have fit the book better. None of this should be taken in any way as a criticism of Howard Goldblatt’s translation, which I think reads very well, capturing/creating a distinct narrative voice.

Would I recommend The Boat to Redemption, even if it’s not the final draft? Yes, I would, if you enjoy novels that combine coming of age, irreverence, and the absurdity of life in an authoritarian country. I never considered abandoning the book, though I did sometimes grow a bit impatient with Dongliang’s running and obsessions. Even in its unperfected form, The Boat to Redemption brings out the pain and odd humor of growing up in a place where logic and privacy are lacking. And, finally, let’s be honest: some writers’ early drafts are a lot better than others’ final drafts.

Bonus: Here’s an article from yesterday’s New York Times, about brand names in China. Names like “Precious Horse” (BMW) and “Happiness Power” (“Coca-Cola”) are yet more evidence that I’m sure I missed lots of references in The Boat to Redemption because of my cluelessness about Chinese culture.

Up Next: Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, then Elias Khoury’s White Masks. And maybe news from this week’s American Literary Translators Association conference, we’ll see!

Disclosure: Standard disclosures; I received a review copy of The Boat to Redemption from Overlook Press, a publisher that I always enjoy talking with.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Keeping the Guys Grounded: DeWitt’s Lightning Rods

Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods isn’t an easy book to discuss: despite the odd humor and tremendous promise of a satirical novel about a vacuum cleaner salesman, Joe, whose sexual fantasies inspire him to design an institutional system for anonymous workplace sex, Lightning Rods left me a little underwhelmed. I think my biggest problem is context, which has nothing to do with Helen DeWitt’s writing: the book was written in the late 1990s, before bailouts of companies deemed too big to fail, before the Anthony Weiner scandal. What passes for reality now makes the absurdities of Lightning Rods look almost delicate.

With Occupy Wall Street in the news these days, Lightning Rods particularly reminds me of bailouts because Joe’s idea is to give alpha males—those same guys who just can’t help it—a way to satisfy their physical urges while improving their workplaces by preventing sexual harassment and raising productivity. Better attendance records are a positive side effect. Entitlement, a popular word these days, is a big part of Joe’s thinking, and one part of his sales pitch is this:

I believe that those in a place of work who do not welcome sexual advances should not be subjected to them. I also believe that a man who is producing results in today’s competitive market place has a right to be protected from potential undesirable side effects of the physical constitution which enables him to make a valued contribution to the company.

These guys become another type of “disadvantaged employees”—I won’t even begin to describe the role and symbolism of the disabled bathroom in the book—a perspective that helps Joe get through the difficulty of meeting with “one prize asshole after another” to sell his product. I should add that Joe’s system is anonymous for everyone involved. Joe becomes his own employment agency, hiring “lightning rod” women for skilled office work and lower-body-only sex, and he uses his modest programming skills to create automated e-invitations for men to visit the lightning rod facility during working hours. Joe goes to great lengths to improve the system for the women who work within it, taking recommendations from ambitious lightning rods who use their extra pay to fund law school educations that lead to spectacular careers.

From a technical perspective, language may be one of the most successful aspects of Lightning Rods: DeWitt writes in a consistently folksy business voice, creating a peculiar, fictional case study of Joe’s successes and failures. She uses lots of exclamation marks and clichés. Two bits from the first page: “How much better to sell something people knew they needed anyway! Something that didn’t make people give you weird looks!... He wasn’t the kind to let grass grow under his feet, so he walked straight into the nearest Electrolux office.” Joe’s thinking is clichéd, too. After he’s developed the idea for lightning rods and prepares to sell it, “He made a point of going straight to the top. People who have worked in personnel for a number of years, he felt, tend to think in clichés and be resistant to new ideas.” Later, Joe eats “a char-grilled burger” and drinks “an ice-cold Bud.”

What’s most interesting about Lightning Rods¸ though, is that, underneath the intentional, institutional blandness of the narrative voice and the cuts at political correctness, corporate life, and ambition, lies a novel about the lack of meaningful human interaction in modern life… which is caused by factors including political correctness, corporate life, ambition, and the intentional, institutional blandness of everyday speech. Of course the genesis of Joe’s money-making idea comes from his fantasies of anonymous sex. And male employees don’t talk with lightning rods, so “That meant that however often you found physical release for your needs, you were never going to be any further along in terms of talking to members of the opposite sex.” Near the end of the book, when Joe invites a woman to his apartment to listen to music, we learn more about his social awkwardness: Joe has only two CDs (Miles Davis and Carlos Jobim) and a bar filled with drinks that, improbably, lacks the Diet Coke the woman wants. Joe lucks out again, though. He still has an Encyclopedia Britannica set from his salesman days, and this woman loves the smell of its leather and new pages.

For more: Lightning Rods is a new release so I’ve avoided detail, but if you want more, here are two positive reviews and an interview with Helen DeWitt:

Bookforum Interview by Morten Høi Jensen

Bookforum Review by Rhonda Lieberman

Open Letters Monthly Review by Morten Høi Jensen

There are also readings from Lightning Rods on YouTube, presented by n+1 and the Center for Fiction. Here’s Part 1; here’s Part 2, in which Helen DeWitt answers questions.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of Lightning Rods from New Directions Publishing at BookExpo America, thank you! I always enjoy speaking with New Directions about literature in translation.

Up next: Probably Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption (this one’s been waiting for weeks!), then Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature, about the wonders of tobacco.

Lightning Rods on Amazon
(I am an Amazon associate and receive a small percentage of purchases that readers make after clicking through my links.)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mawkish Sentimentality: Cather’s Lucy Gayheart

An observation after reading Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart: unsatisfying novels by classic writers often provide the very worst reading disappointments. I found Lucy Gayheart particularly unsatisfying because I read and enjoyed two or three of Cather’s books, including My Ántonia and Death Comes to the Archbishop, in high school and college. That, of course, was so long ago that I’m not sure if the problem is with my changing tastes or with Lucy Gayheart itself. Probably both.

Lucy Gayheart is the story of a young woman who leaves a small, cold Nebraska hometown to study music in Chicago. Lucy leaves behind her widower father and older sister, both of whom sacrificed to raise Lucy, and her banker beau Harry Gordon. In Chicago, Lucy finds work as an accompanist for singer Clement Sebastian, a well-travelled older man who has a condescending streak. They fall in love. Separate tragedies, which I’ll try not to reveal below, ensue for Sebastian and Lucy.

I’m sure many of my problems with Lucy Gayheart derive from my own reading history: themes of tragic love and music figure into Russian stories like Aleksandr Kuprin’s “Garnet Bracelet” and Lev Tolstoi’s Kreutzer Sonata. Neither of those pieces appeals to me much, either, though I’ve always had a soft spot for Russian sentimentalism, particularly Nikolai Karamzin’s Poor Liza. Liza and Lucy share plenty of themes, too, like tragic love between a younger woman and a more sophisticated man, and a wagon-load of sentimentality. I think those themes work much better, though, in Karamzin’s eighteenth-century story than in Cather’s 1935 novel.

I think my biggest difficulty with Lucy Gayheart is that it feels mawkishly sentimental—oddly, I was thinking of the book as “mawkish,” a word I rarely use, even before I read Harry Gordon reminiscing about Lucy by thinking “She had ruined all that for a caprice, a piece of mawkish sentimentality.” Worse, Cather never convinced me that Lucy and Sebastian could fall in love: Lucy hearing Sebastian sing “When We Two Parted” and then sensing impending doom just wasn’t enough.

Lucy Gayheart has a neat structure with motifs, like ice skating, that run through the whole novel, and Cather creates some fitting contrasts between town and city. A Chicago passage about “the crowded hour in the crowded part of the city” felt particularly lively. Lucy and Sebastian, though, felt anything but lively, too flat and empty as characters to develop into a true couple. Lucy, with her strong stride and love for cold weather, just doesn’t seem the type to melt for a man like Sebastian, in his velvet jacket. Poor Harry Gordon, who marries another woman after Lucy pushes him aside, feels like the most complex figure of all, thinking of Lucy’s choice as mawkishly sentimental but going to great lengths to preserve his conflicting memories of her.

Up Next: Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, which is definitely not a sentimental novel. Or maybe I’ll finally post about Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption.

Image credit: Carl Van Vechten's photo of Cather in 1936; photo received via Wikipedia.

Willa Cather on Amazon

(I am an Amazon associate and receive a small percentage of purchases that readers make after clicking through my links.)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Shades of Gray: Petterson’s In the Wake

Per Petterson’s portrait of Arvid Jansen, the first-person narrator of In the Wake reminds me of my visit to Vardø, a small town on the very top of Norway. I came to Vardø on a Hurtigruten coastal steamer ship, and the landscape looked brown and gray from the water. But when I walked through October fields and went to see the island’s one linden tree, I found bits of brightness among the gray rocks and brown earth.

In the Wake, translated from the Norwegian original I kjølvannet by Anne Born, feels equally dreary at first glance, telling the story of Arvid’s difficulty coming to terms with the death of his parents and brothers in a ship fire. Arvid’s mortality is an issue, too. Arvid drinks too much and keeps a distance from most other people, including his brother David, who attempts suicide early in the book. Still, Arvid perks up at human contact with, among others, that same brother, his Kurdish neighbor, a nurse who offers cocoa, and a potter at a small store. The last scene in the book, which endeared the book to me, uses dark humor that seems to show a transition from “Why bother?” to “Might as well” when confronted with the hard conditions of life and death.

In the Wake is loaded with interiority and minutiae, hardly accidental since Arvid reminds us that Bashō, whom he enjoys reading, says “Everything was something.” The reader learns details about a cottage, knows what Arvid eats, and almost feels the rhythm of windshield wipers and Arvid’s heartbeat. And then there are memories of childhood, of cards showing boxing, of skiing expeditions, and so many other things that Arvid says his life “was filled to the bursting point, and it had been like that the year before and the year before that, and as long as I had been thinking with the better part of my brain…”

It’s difficult to describe the effect that Petterson’s book had on me: Arvid is a quintessentially not-so-pleasant anti(hero) for an existentialist novel and the beginning of the book is confusing. But the lonely northern snow, rain, and fog, and Arvid’s dislike of the telephone eventually drew me in. So did his neighbor’s habit of saying “problem.” Perhaps what drew me most, though, was Arvid’s habit of shutting himself off. Don’t we all—or at least most of us—want to interact with others on our own terms? And then there’s this perfect bit, as Arvid lies on his back outside in the cold:

I look up between the tree trunks to the sky, which is completely clear and full of stars, and it slowly turns around, the whole world turns slowly around and is a huge, empty space. Silence is everywhere, and there is nothing between me and the stars, and when I try to think of something, I think of nothing. I close my eyes and smile to myself.

This, too, reminds me of my day in Vardø, though my memories are of sitting and looking out at the ocean in the afternoon, not the stars at night. When I left town the next day, the taxi driver who brought me to the airport told me he’d like to take the Hurtigruten someday, too, but he would only do it the same way I did: alone and in the off-season.

For More: Adam Gallari’s article “In the Wake: Per Petterson and the Notion of Contemporary Existentialism,” on The Quarterly Conversation.

Up Next: Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption. Then Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart.

Image Credit: Photo of wake behind a ferry in the Baltic Sea from user "Wanted," via Wikipedia.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

No Exit: Dawn Powell’s Dance Night

Dawn Powell’s Dance Night (1930), a not-too-long novel set in nonexistent Lamptown, Ohio, presents a brutal portrait of lonely lives in a small factory town with railroad tracks. Powell shows us the town and its people through Morry Abbott, a dreamy teenager who wants to get the hell out. Morry’s father, Charles, is a traveling candy salesman whose eye and itineraries stray. He doesn’t treat Morry’s mother, Elsinore, proprietress of the Bon Ton Hat Shop, very well, so Powell gives us this, early on, “Elsinore knew that Charles Abbot was a weak, blustering man, but after the day he first kissed her these matters receded, a curtain dropped definitely between her and his faults.”

Life in Lamptown is claustrophobic. Geographically, Morry and his mother live near Bill Delaney’s Saloon and Billiard Shop, Bauer’s Chop House, and the Casino Dance Hall. On the first page, Thursday night music from the Casino drifts to Morry as he reads Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Psychologically, things feel even closer: when Morry goes downstairs that same night, he runs into his mother’s assistant, Nettie, who threatens to tell Elsinore that Morry has been smoking. The tattling really picks up when someone discovers what Mrs. Pepper, the corset saleslady, does in her travels.

It’s not enough to say these characters have strained relationships built on unfavorable premises and unstable lives. Young Morry sees girls—like Jen, the girl next door who has come from an orphanage, and her sister Lil—as abstractions to hold onto, not exactly a surprise given the example his parents, one cheating in reality, the other in her daydreams, have set. The Abbotts are typical: escape is what everybody in Lamptown seems to have in common, whether they want to leave town, a spouse, or their social class. Most escapes are temporary, just sales trips, all-night excursions after the Casino, and/or drinking.

The highlight of Dance Night is a Thursday night dance scene toward the end of the book. Powell has brought the reader to the Casino before for dances, but nothing’s quite like this, with shades of red and plenty of drink, plus words like wicked, carnival, violence, witchcraft, wild, and circus. “Carnival” comes up, complete with its usual masks and reversals of everyday life, just before Elsinore leaves the dance hall, shortly before something truly terrible happens:

Her head was splitting with noise but she wasn’t sure if the noise was outside or inside, so many strange confusing thoughts crowded through her head like masked guests at a carnival, exciting, terrifying, shouting phrases they would never dare whisper under their own names.

Dance Night, which is heavier on psychology than plot, is worth reading if only for Powell’s descriptions of her characters’ thoughts and their obsessions so linked to carnival and escape. Her language is beautifully crafted and expressive, scary and lovely at the same time, and Powell succinctly characterizes Lamptown’s people through Morry’s aspirations for real estate development. Morry wants to build houses that don’t all look alike but his venture fails and another man tells him, “Boy, you might as well make up your mind now as later that people don’t want anything pretty, and damned if they want anything useful, they just want what other people have. You take these cement porches--” Grasping the mediocrity around him and his own failure, Morry realizes that “Nobody believed in the things you believed but yourself…” Then he starts wondering what to do with himself next.

For more:

Dawn Powell: The America Writer, by Gore Vidal (The Library of America) [Warning: This piece reveals most of the major plot turns in Dance Night.]

Margo Jefferson’s review of Dawn Powell at Her Best (from Steerforth Press, the edition I read… a nice find at the library book sale!), The New York Times Book Review, October 19, 1994. I particularly like this observation: “Actually, [Dance Night] is as close to musical theater as a novel can get: all the people have their own cadence and language; they move along through the stuff of their daily lives, then suddenly burst into action or fantasy as if they were bursting into song.”

Up Next: Su Tong’s Boat to Redemption.

Image Credit: Photo of Dawn Powell, 1914, uploaded to Wikipedia by DanielVonEhren.

Monday, September 5, 2011

When Hell Is Other People: Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude

Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, a very satisfying novel about British life during World War 2 that was first published in 1947, is one of the funniest and most melancholy books about communal dining and living that I’ve read in a long time. Hamilton focuses on a woman known as Miss Roach who has taken up residence at the Rosamond Tea Rooms in Thames Lockdon, a fictional suburb of London, after bombings in London.

The Rosamond Tea Rooms, however, isn’t as pastoral as it might sound: Miss Roach has her own dingy-sounding room but at mealtime she must contend with the likes of Mr. Thwaites, a blowhard who loves goading her. Here’s what one tenant thinks of Mr. Thwaites: “Mr. Prest thought that the old man was a noisy, nattering, messy piece of work who ought to be in a mental home.” This observation sums up Hamilton’s arch tone; he’s unsparing with his characters, even Miss Roach, the most sympathetic, who is the recipient of all sorts of verbal abuse.

During the course of the book, Miss Roach, who works for a publisher and is (or maybe wants to be?) something of bluestocking, meets an American lieutenant from Wilkes-Barre and looks forward to a German-born friend, the comb-pinching Vicki Kugelmann, moving in at the Rosamond Tea Rooms. I don’t think it spoils much to say that neither relationship works out very well, particularly given the amount of cocktails—sometimes a gin and French for Miss Roach—everyone consumes at the local pub and the lounge at the Rosamond Tea Rooms. Christmas is especially hellacious. There’s lots of cutting, childish conflict in the book, psychological homefront conflict that parallels the horror of war.

Perhaps the most palpable effect of the war on the residents of Thames Lockdon is the blackout. Hamilton beautifully contrasts darkness with light, juxtaposing opposites such as crowds/solitude and even, far in the background but omnipresent and wearing on everyone’s nerves, Axis/Allies. On page one, for example, Hamilton first calls London a “crouching monster” then brings the reader to Thames Lockdon. “The conditions were those of intense war, intense winter, and intensest black-out in the month of December.” When an evening train arrives, though, Hamilton offers a phrase that initially sounds almost optimistic, “Torches came flashing on and going out like fireflies. These fireflies went away in all directions in an atmosphere which was one blended of release, of caution in the blackness, and of renewed painful awareness of the cold.” Miss Roach is among those fireflies (two bugs in one?), and she makes her way to the Rosamond Tea Rooms through a town whose architecture features “the jostling of the graceful and genuine and old by the demented fake and ye-olde.”

Miss Roach is, as I mentioned, the most sympathetic of Hamilton’s main characters, one of the slaves of his title, a person for whom too much contact with other people really is hell. She finds a bit of quiet and aloneness in the last book’s final pages, after seeing the afore-mentioned Mr. Prest perform at the theater. In one of the book’s key paragraphs, Miss Roach wonders “what exact motive Mr. Prest had in being alive—if, and by what means, this seemingly empty, utterly idle and silent man justified his existence…”

I particularly like that phrase because one might wonder the same about Miss Roach: though we occasionally see her read manuscripts and know she was a schoolmistress, Hamilton gives her a horribly unflattering name and seems to deprive her of a rich intellectual life. Miss Roach even grows increasingly petty as Mr. Thwaites and Vicki Kuglemann torture her more, even thinking Vicki “had always been a filthy eater, by the way, but that had been a mere detail.” Still, poor Miss Roach—a human spot of light who recognizes the difficulties of literal and metaphorical darkness, as well as the war—just wants to be treated with respect and left alone to face life’s real dangers rather than mean teasing, something I think most of us probably consider crucial aspects of existence that require no justification.

Disclaimers: The Slaves of Solitude was a gift from a friend who works in a bookstore. Thank you very much! I know the book’s publisher, New York Review Books, through discussions about translated literature.

Up Next: Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Chejfec’s Narrated Thoughts in My Two Worlds

Thank goodness for introductions! After reading Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, in Margaret B. Carson’s translation from the original Spanish Mis dos mundos, I wondered how to describe the book. My Two Worlds is a 103-page work that doesn’t quite feel like a novel or novella: a writer on the cusp of his fiftieth birthday takes a walk in a Brazilian park, remembers, sits, observes, watches a menacing swan paddle boat, and even has a cup of coffee. Filled with minutiae and meta-material but short on what’s typically known as plot, My Two Worlds is dense reading best taken at a very leisurely pace. It’s an unusual walk in the park.

I didn’t read Enrique Vila-Matas’s introduction, also translated by Carson, until I sat down to write… I was happy to find this very apt description of Chejfec:

“But if I really think about it, Chejfec is someone intelligent for whom the word novelist is a poor fit, because he creates artifacts, narrations, books, narrated thoughts rather than novels.”

And there it was, a perfect description of the book’s genre, handily italicized, as if for me: narrated thoughts. Readers who enjoy micron-level meditations on life, often prompted by observations in the present that, in turn, prompt memory, will love Chejfec’s narrated thoughts.

Narrated thoughts isn’t one of my preferred genres—I tend to think of their narrators, including this one, as nudniks who want to tell me too much that I’ve already thought or read about before—but I have to admit that My Two Worlds contains some very, very satisfying passages and themes. And thoughts. A few rather random examples that play on my own memories, thoughts, and parallel realities but don’t begin to get to the complexity of the book:

Geography and Finding One’s Place: Our narrator mentions operating using “territorial intuition” but has difficulty finding the way to the park. I like the geographical metaphor for finding one’s place in life, particularly within the context of Chejfec’s overlapping worlds.

The Eternal Walker: The narrator refers to himself as “an eternal walker,” saying “to walk is to enact the illusion of autonomy and above all the myth of authenticity.” He walks for hours, finding tedium but…

He Also Finds the Past and an Alternate Dimension: The narrator thinks about his own life and history and the world’s history, presenting the reader with bits of both that feel to me like a hybrid of concentric circles and Venn diagrams. (Of course, I love Venn diagrams.)

The Impact of the Internet: I particularly enjoyed the thought that “The places or circumstances that have drawn my attention take the form of Internet links… On a walk an image will lead me into a memory or into several…” This makes me wonder about hypertext as a digital form of madeleines. (And reminds me that I really should read all of In Search of Lost Time... The shame!) I, too, find my off-line thought processes ever more influenced by digital habits. On a very prosaic level: I’m sure I’m not the only person who wonders what happened to autocorrect when she writes with a pen.

That Menacing Swan Boat: That damn swan boat, ridden by a girl and her father, stuck with me more than anything, impinging on the narrator’s space and privacy, as if following, spying. Neatest of all about the swan boat is that Chejfec links this imitation swan to real, live swans that the narrator remembers, earlier in the book: those swans are “so unpleasant that I had to retreat to a path several dozen meters away that led to an avenue that encircled the lake.”

Disclaimers: A big thanks to Chad Post of Open Letter (with whom I’ve discussed translated fiction) for providing a review copy of the book. Open Letter has signed two more Chejfec books.

Image Credit: SeanJC, via

Up Next: Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Perrotta’s Warmed Over Leftovers

I looked forward to Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, a novel about the aftermath of a rapture-like event known as the Sudden Departure: I found lots of promise in the book’s prologue, which mentions a feeling of rejection among people who weren’t taken away during the instantaneous, nondenominational disappearance of millions. After the mention of the Departed Heroes’ Day of Remembrance and Reflection and a heated argument in the first chapter, I expected lots of telling 21st-century conflict, maybe an apocalyptically angry religious right fighting with grieving family members over religion, memory, and news coverage. Alas, it wasn’t to be: The Leftovers fizzled out for me like Harold Camping’s doomsday warnings of May 2011.

Oddly, I think the biggest problem with the novel is its verisimilitude: Perrotta creates grieving, confused characters who numb themselves with typical stuff like agreeability, teenage sex and drinking, adult screenings of SpongeBob, and peculiar cult-like activity. The central characters are the Garvey family: father Kevin (agreeability), mother Laurie (joins Guilty Remnants religious group that limits talking, requires smoking), college-age son Tom (joins Healing Hug Movement), and high school student daughter Jill (drinks, skips school). None of the Garvey family disappeared, though Jill was with a not-so-close-anymore friend who vanished whilst YouTubing.

All that agreeability, uncommunicativeness, and avoidance might reflect real ways people grieve and handle stress, and they may show how people, survivors, depart without departing because they wall themselves off from their friends and family. But it’s tricky to propel a novel with inertness and inertia, particularly when the reader knows an angry-as-hell character like Reverend Jamison, who wonders why he wasn’t worthy of being whooshed from the earth, is lurking around town, ready to reveal the sins of the departed. Yes, Jamison breaks the story of Nora Durst’s husband’s affair but there’s no showdown, and Jamison gets very little ink.

I think my other biggest problem with the book is that the narrative voice felts a pinch too snarky, ironic, and/or smug for the book to generate much empathy for the characters, their situations, or the human condition, even though I had no trouble believing everyone hurt. The novel didn’t quite feel like satire, either, and absurdity would be an even bigger stretch. The tone felt out of balance, and I came away with the impression that Perrotta backed away from the edginess and riskiness he’d begun to establish in the book’s early pages.

Tension does develop—finally!—in the book’s last 50-75 pages, when [mild spoiler alert!] we confirm what we suspect about Laurie’s Guilty Remnants, a couple doesn’t quite make it, Jill starts to sort things out, and Tom finishes his job escorting a teenage mother who’s given birth to a baby fathered by the head healing hugger. Perrotta frenetically jumps between subplots then neatly ends the novel with something resembling a clean slate. Maybe Perrotta intends it as a final cliché in a novel filled with predictable turns? Whatever, as they say. I was indifferent by the time I got to the end of this readable but disappointing book: I was ready to move on with my reading life, finish mourning The Leftovers that might’ve been, and search my shelves for a book I’d enjoy more.

Disclaimers: I received an advance review copy of The Leftovers from St. Martin’s Press at BookExpo America. Thank you!

Up Next: Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bad to the Bone: Greene’s Brighton Rock

The front flap of my Penguin Classics edition of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock uses appealingly dark—and, it turns out, accurate—words like murder, menace, tawdry, apathy, and evil to describe the novel. Though saying teenage criminal Pinkie Brown “worships in the temple of evil” might sound a bit melodramatic, it’s not an unfair characterization, given Pinkie’s Roman [Catholic] background and criminal transgressions.

Pinkie, a.k.a. the Boy, is a teenage gang member in 1930s Brighton, England. Through the course of the novel, Pinkie is involved in the afore-mentioned murderous activity, a knife fight, and a not-quite-legal marriage, which he arranges so a very young waitress, Rose, can’t testify against him. Mix that with the afore-mentioned Catholic upbringing, Latin quotations, some cruel cuts at Rose, and talk of mortal sin, and you end up with a lovely mess of moral confusion.

I particularly enjoyed the contrasts that Greene creates in Brighton Rock. On one side, there’s the prideful Pinkie, who carries a boulder of a chip on his shoulder because he’s so young and easy to humiliate: he can only dream of being the older, wealthier criminal boss Colleoni. And then there’s the sybaritic Ida Arnold—she of big bosom and little religious faith—who knows the difference between right and wrong and, sure she knows the truth about a death, pesters Rose and Pinkie. Rose, by the way, has no use for Ida’s right and wrong, preferring “stronger foods—Good and Evil” and making some surprising choices.

I should note that Ida loves her alcohol and doesn’t mind a good tip on the horse races, particularly if the winnings can fund her search for the truth. Here’s Ida, whom I described as “a carpe diem kind of gal” in a margin note: “The éclair and the deep couch and the gaudy furnishings were like an aphrodisiac in her tea. She was shaken by a Bacchic and a bawdy mood.” On the next page: “She bore the same relation to passion as a peepshow.”

In the end, Pinkie gets what he deserves, a fate that fits the nihilistic worldview of a boy-man who wanted to be a priest when he was a small child but ends up a murderer as a slightly larger child. Perhaps the front flap is more right than I’d thought about Pinkie worshiping at the temple of evil: at one point he tells Rose he hasn’t changed over the years, saying, “I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.” Brighton Rock candy, a note in the back of the book explains, is sold in stick form and always says Brighton inside, no matter how you break it. (A photo)

Up next: Not sure… but likely Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds.

Image credit: “Aquarium, Brighton, England,” from user Durova on Wikipedia’s Brighton, page.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ingrid Winterbach’s Book of Happenstance

Ingrid Winterbach’s Die Boek van toeval en toeverlaat, known in Dirk and Ingrid Winterbach’s English translation as The Book of Happenstance, is a satisfyingly busy novel about one Helena Verbloem, a lexicographer working with one Theo Verwey on a list of archaic Afrikaans words. Helena is less bereft about the decline of words, though, than the theft of her shell collection. She even takes it upon herself to search for the perpetrator with a friend. The novel is structurally complex: though Theo is dead on page one, Winterbach tells most of her story in flashback, showing us Theo and Helena as they discuss d words about devils and h words about hearts, and taking us with Helena and her new friend Sof on trips to try to find the shell thief.

Winterbach connects many of her multiple plot and thematic lines with biological metaphors, drawing the reader through pathways that reminded me of a complex maze within a shell. Though The Book of Happenstance initially felt a bit overly complicated—or maybe even portentous?—Winterbach’s tremendous skill at unwinding the story won me over. So did her humor. Sof, for example, gets to say this about her husband, “He is a psychiatrist with as much insight into the human psyche as a mole. For that alone he deserves to die.”

Here’s a sampling of some of the aspects of the book I enjoyed most:

The death and the theft: We don’t learn much about Theo Verwey’s death until the end of the book, when Winterbach’s flashbacks finally catch up with the timeframe at the beginning of the novel. And then, oh my, is Theo’s wake something to behold, with a well-dressed widow and indecorously opulent tables of “edibles, expensive china, heavy silver, crystal glasses, lovely flower arrangements.” There are even descriptions of food; “spinach leaves enfolding mussels” are among the items that sound worth trying. Though we learn little about the fate of Helena’s shells (that would be beside the point), we accompany her on visits to potential perpetrators. Cue up Nabokov and Joyce: Helena passes herself off as Dolly Haze, Sof says she’s Anna Livia Plurabelle, and they claim to be from the Bible Society. I found the deception very funny.

Biological metaphors, particularly shells: My favorite aspect of The Book of Happenstance was Winterbach’s use of the shell metaphor, perhaps because it reminded me so much of a Chekhov story, “The Man in the Case,” which I hadn’t read in years. Early in the story, one character says (in Ivy Litvinov’s translation) that the man in the case “betrayed a perpetual, irrepressible urge to create a covering for himself, as it were a case, to isolate him and protect him against external influences.” There is also a mention of hermit crabs and snails. A century or so later, Helena speaks of the staying power of mollusks, saying they’ve “been around for much longer than vertebrates,” adding that they’ll survive longer than us, “but always wearing their beauty as protection.” After Helena’s shells disappear, someone from her past begins phoning her and she starts reminiscing about dead family members, but we also see her retreat into her own shell, away from her lover. She is very conscious of avoiding pain, telling someone she meets during her “investigation” that “Everything we bind ourselves to excessively will eventually cause us pain—that way lies madness, and grief.” Ouch, that soft tissue! There’s lots more nature in the book: Helena describes the shell secretion process to Sof, and Helena’s curiosity about biology leads to discussion of the history of the universe, including evolution, RNA, and (of course) fossils.

Labels for shells and words for meanings: One of the neatest passages in the book involves Helena’s inspection of a shell storage room in the Natural History Museum—which hosts Theo’s word project, go figure—and discussion of the need for labeling specimens. A conchologist shows Helena shells that lack names, dates, and locations, meaning they’re “of no value for scientific purposes.” The mollusks, Helena mentions, need to be found alive to qualify for a scientific collection… a bit different from the Afrikaans words she and Theo discuss and place on the list for their glossary. I particularly enjoyed Helena’s real-life uses for some of the words they discuss and record, giving them personal, relevant meanings, if only temporarily.


A quick note on another book, Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi, a novel that sounds like a perfect companion for a trip to Florida last weekend and the recent OMG-it’s-even-hotter-in-Maine heat wave that followed. I loved the premise of the book: a teenage boy named Bernie investigates the freezer in his basement looking for meat to reenact Portnoy’s Complaint but instead finds a rabbi frozen in a block of ice. The rabbi later comes to life during a power outage then establishes himself as (let’s just say) a spiritual advisor in contemporary Tennessee. In parallel, we learn how the rabbi got to America after being frozen in 1889 in Eastern Europe. There’s some funny material in The Frozen Rabbi but it’s an unbalanced book, lacking enough character development to make me warm to long (long!) passages of encyclopedic family history and Bernie’s not-so-interesting relationship with his girlfriend. On the positive side, my passive knowledge of Yiddish is improving.

Disclosures: Standard disclosures. I received review copies of both books: The Book of Happenstance came from Open Letter, a publisher with which I always enjoy speaking about literature in translation, and The Frozen Rabbi came from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Thank you to both!

Up next: Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Sometimes, I just need to read a Graham Greene book.

Image credit: Chris 73, via Wikipedia/Wikipedia Commons.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Hazards of Not Shooting Straight: The Singer’s Gun

I almost always enjoy an eerie, existential thriller, so I had fun reading Emily St. John Mandel’s The Singer’s Gun, a sparely told novel about identity, truth, escape, and the law. Mandel tells the story of Anton Waker, a man unhappy to have been born into a family of criminals; he has particular difficulty with his cousin Aria, with whom he’s worked selling false identity papers. Anton is missing and under investigation at the beginning of the book, and Mandel tells much of his story in flashbacks.

There’s lots to admire in The Singer’s Gun, but the highlight for me was Mandel’s combination of clean writing and stripped-down settings: New York City, where Anton lives, felt especially empty and lonely. That may be partly because Anton is banished to a mezzanine-level dead file room early in the book when it seems he’s being fired from a water systems consulting company. That development is devastating for Anton, a guy who saw office work as an appealing alternative to illegal activity, “This will sound strange, I mean, I know it’s crazy, but I always wanted to work in an office.” He admits to having a “corporate soul,” though he won his job based on falsehood.

Mandel gradually reveals Anton’s relationships with his wife, Sophie, and secretary, Elena, uncovering layers of lies. Everybody seems to hide papers that would change how others would perceive them, and most of the relationships – particularly between Elena and her boyfriend, Caleb, dulled by antidepressants – feel wary, dispassionate, and even adversarial in a slow burn way. I suppose it’s a corollary that there’s lots of drifting in The Singer’s Gun: when Anton tries to escape his fate on an island (can any man be an island in our era?), he meets others attempting the same.

Of course Manhattan is an island, too, something Mandel doesn’t let us forget, both through the criminal act that triggers the investigation and the end of a darkly comic scene at a restaurant, where Anton and Aria help celebrate Anton’s parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary. After a toast and a glance at his chicken parmiggiano, Anton thinks, “Behold the holiness of my family, serene and utterly at ease in their corruption, toasting thirty years of love and theft in a restaurant on an island in a city by the sea.”

Yes, there is a gun, yes, there is a singer, and yes, Mandel does follow Chekhov’s advice: a gun fires. But I won’t say where, when, how, or on whom. I’ve gone light on details because I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone who might decide to read it… but I will say it’s filled with many wonderful touches from Mandel, who beautifully balances harsh realism with a slightly schematic, off-kilter atmosphere as she shows us the painful and strange ways that identity and rules affect our choices in life.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Singer’s Gun from publisher Unbridled Books at BookExpo America; Emily St. John Mandel signed it for me. I enjoyed speaking with Emily and Unbridled publisher Greg Michalson during BEA. Thanks to both! I should also mention that The Singer’s Gun won an Indie Booksellers Choice Award on May 23, 2011.

Up next: Ingrid Winterbach’s The Book of Happenstance.

Photo credit: mistereels, via

Monday, June 27, 2011

Is Three a Crowd?: Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog

This must be my year for reading sprawling, sentimental, time-bending, and exceptionally satisfying postmodern novels about life, death, and memory: first came Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair, now Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, which I read in Ross Benjamin’s translation from the original German. Funeral for a Dog is beautifully composed and constructed, an exuberant, emotional, and smart book that takes full advantage of the freedom that a postmodern framework (or lack thereof) can offer

So: Our primary narrator is Daniel Mandelkern, a German journalist-who’s-really-an-ethnologist whose editor-wife sends him to Italy to interview Dirk Svensson, author of a children’s book, The Story of Leo and the Notmuch that explains death. Mandelkern, whose last name is German for amygdala, offers up detailed chunks of text describing his present visit and his past experiences in life. Mandelkern is trying to decide whether to love or leave his wife, Elisabeth. Svensson has emotional issues of his own: Mandelkern arrives simultaneously with other visitors, a woman named Tuuli and her young son. Everybody ends up in a house by Lake Lugano, including Mandelkern, who had a hotel reservation and whose baggage (physical and some metaphorical) was lost en route. Svensson has a dog, Lua, who likes beer and has only three legs.

Poor Mandelkern needs to get his interview so he can write an article and go home but Svensson is evasive and Mandelkern finds a manuscript in a locked suitcase that he opens with one of Tuuli’s hairpins. The text appears to tell the story of the intertwined lives of Svensson, Tuuli, and Felix, and the birth of Tuuli’s son a few years before, though it’s unclear what’s true. Svensson loves twisting tales. Meanwhile, Mandelkern, ever the ethnologist, observes many things at the house but also realizes he’s getting involved with his subject(s).

Felix, incidentally, is dead, and Svensson’s efforts to preserve his memory are what make the book so appealing and touching. Tuuli tells Mandelkern that Svensson “collects fragments and assembles them into a world he can bear,” and, later, that Svensson’s property is filled with old things, photos of dead animals, rotten chairs, and weeds. Underlying all this decay are carnival motifs. In Svensson’s manuscript, Astroland, people go to amusement parks, and all the novel’s tracks include plenty of sex and drinking. Mandelkern also describes lots of eating; the idea of gnocchi with sage won’t leave me. Neither will thoughts of aioli or roast chicken cooked with garlic.

More on that chicken: Pletzinger masterfully threads motifs between the novel’s various timelines and text chunks. Astroland, for example, contains a scene of cockfighting in Brazil and later Svensson slaughters chickens for dinner during Mandelkern’s visit. Pletzinger’s attention to these details helps Funeral for a Dog become one of the most successful novel-within-a-novel books that I’ve read. In another section, apple juice flows in two time frames and text chunks, first with Tuuli and her son, then with Elisabeth.

Pletzinger also fills his novel with fluid groups of three: Lua’s legs, a love combination of Svensson-Tuuli-Felix, Mandelkern-husband-of-Elisabeth kissing Tuuli, and so on. Svensson-Tuuli-Felix are even described as Borromean rings, a label that doesn’t carry the luridness of ménage a trois. It’s also more fitting to the novel, which struck me as anything but lurid: Funeral for a Dog presents a nice balance of the Apollonian and the Bacchanalian, a well-planned but chaotic-looking account of how to learn to eat, drink, and be merry while finding your own way to remain alive after friends, be they human or animal, die. Funeral for a Dog is a very affecting and sincere book about memory and life that I’m sure I’ll reread, both to re-experience its emotional depth and to catch more of its parallels and references. The book is especially enjoyable because Benjamin’s translation reads beautifully.

Up Next: The Singer’s Gun, by Emily St. John Mandel.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Funeral for a Dog from Regal Literary. Thank you very much!

Image credit: Sage from FlashInPan, via

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bad Intentions Squared: Fatale and The Death of the Adversary

I’ve fallen behind on posting so this week I’ll write, briefly!, about two books: J.P. Manchette’s Fatale, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, and Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary, translated from the German original Der Tod des Widersachers by Ivo Jarosy.

Fatale is an evil sliver of Euronoir that brings a killer antiheroine who calls herself Aimée to the French seaside town of Bléville. Manchette sets the tone for violence on the first page: hunters are cranky because they’ve been out for hours and haven’t killed anything. But Fatale’s first death, on the second page, involves a human, setting us up for a high-stakes account of survival of the fittest. The killer, of course, is Aimée, who boards a train in the next chapter: she dyes her hair and feasts on choucroute, with “great chomps” in her luxury compartment. I wrote “very prole” in the margin: Aimée has a case full of cash but is surrounded by the nasty aromas of her money and food, which is said to smell like bodily fluids that I won’t name, lest I spoil the fun for anyone.

Fatale is a supremely class-conscious novel. Beyond the food, Aimée is a scam artist looking for powerful, well-heeled marks in Bléville. The novella ends with a spate of deaths that feels campy, and Aimée’s bad end is accompanied by an address from Manchette to his female readers. Fatale is filled with weird moments. My favorite is probably when Aimée is at a gathering, sitting on a settee in a hallway of what sounds like a swanky house, when, all of a sudden, a man comes out of the bathroom and begins urinating against the wall. I’ll leave things at that and just say that I thought Fatale was an oddly enjoyable book.

I thought The Death of the Adversary, though, was odd without being particularly enjoyable, despite some occasional comic relief: a first-person narrator discusses his hatred for a figure named B. B. strongly resembles Hitler, and the narrator seems be describing life in Nazi Germany. Part of my difficulty with The Death of the Adversary is that some of the book’s passages depend heavily on an interiority that felt repetitive and cramped; it must be difficult to carry so much hatred. For my taste, a scene in which a young man describes desecration of a cemetery is one of the strongest in the book: the narrator’s tension is palpable, in trembling and sweat, when he is faced with a real adversary, in a real-life conversation. Seeing B. at a parade, though, leaves the narrator “tired and depressed. I felt like lying down on a nearby park bench and going to sleep.”

Though The Death of the Adversary felt a little uneven to me as a novel, it felt important as a portrait of hatred and the role of enemies in our lives because Keilson’s characters and their actions and reactions felt so authentic. Keilson’s use of abstraction weakens the book in one sense – the shadow of Hitler always looms and I think it’s natural to want to identify him definitively – but it also strengthens the novel by opening the possibility for universality.

Keilson died recently, and his obituary in The New York Times, written by William Grimes, notes Kielson’s background and the circumstances of writing The Death of the Adversary. Grimes also calls the translation “stilted.” I don’t know if the translation reflects Keilson’s German-language style or not but I agree with Grimes’s thought: the language of the English translation sometimes felt cumbersome to me, too. Though the awkwardness made the novel a touch more difficult to read, intentional or not, it felt almost organic to the story of a man trying to figure out his place in life when faced with adversarial conditions.

Up Next: Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of Fatale from New York Review Books at BookExpo America. I always enjoy speaking with NYRB about translations. I received my copy of The Death of the Adversary from fellow blogger Amy Henry, who wrote about the book here; Amy got the novel from publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Thanks to all for the books!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dreaming Is Free: The Night Circus

First off, an apology: I know it’s unkind to write about books that won’t be available for months. It’s something I don’t usually do, and I hadn’t intended to write about Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus, until its release date in September… But sometimes fate – in this case, a minor head cold and a stack of books acquired at BookExpo America – takes over.

I picked The Night Circus off my book pile because I thought a novel about a dreamy circus that comes and goes without notice sounded like a perfect companion during my cold. I wasn’t wrong: The Night Circus is a page-turner about magic, love, imagination, desire, and what results when the four combine. The main plot involves Marco and Celia, two magicians whose guardians commit them in the late 1800s to a competition designed to end in death. Of course they fall in love. The mysterious competition, imposed on children by adults, felt absolutely inorganic to me, which is unfortunate since so much of the book’s action springs from it.

The circus, known as Le Cirque des Rêves, is largely a tribute to the relationship that grows out of the competition. The circus felt very much alive: Celia and Marco create attractions for each other, and, fittingly, descriptions of the circus’s wonders are Morgenstern’s greatest achievement. Morgenstern populates The Night Circus with many (dozens of?) characters but her circus details are more memorable: her intricate clocks remind of mortality, her bottles contain stories, and her dresses change color. They feel more real, more lifelike than her people, with one exception: a boy from Massachusetts, Bailey, who first enters the circus on a dare, when it is closed.

What’s most interesting about The Night Circus is the underlying power of circus attractions to draw people by playing on imagination, dreams, and illusion. Morgenstern incorporates themes about magic and circuses that I’ve run across in several Russian novels, emphasizing the role of the observer, who must be open to illusion. I’m open as a reader, too, and I had little trouble believing in the circus’s ever-burning cauldron, never-melting ice, mysterious train, and acrobatic kittens. But I wasn’t sure what to make of the rêveurs who follow the circus – and their own dreams – around the world, wearing identifying red scarves. Maybe it’s because the rêveurs felt more earthly than the circus but, with the exception of the original rêveur, they felt a bit cultish. (Or maybe it’s because “rêveur” sounds like “raver”?) Like many of the characters and motifs (e.g. public faces and masks) in The Night Circus, they felt a little underdrawn, as if they could have contributed more to the novel but lost out to description of scenery.

I came away from The Night Circus feeling ambivalent. Morgenstern’s stylized language conjures up vivid places, smells, and atmospheres that make for wonderful entertainment even if you’re not a big fan of circuses, and the book reads almost like a lucid dream. But The Night Circus lacked power for a reader like me who enjoys characters that develop through the course of a novel: here, the people and their stories seem schematic and secondary to the attractions they create, and the novel’s messages about imagination and love didn’t feel especially original despite much loveliness. The Night Circus hit on many of my other negative biases, too, but I have to say that the novel’s circus still drew me in… though its effects are fading quickly, like the ephemeral, image-laden dreams and nightmares of what passes for real life.

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of The Night Circus from Doubleday/Random House at BookExpo America, thank you! I also took a bag of caramel corn that went with it and should probably disclose my gratitude to Doubleday/Random House for the snack since I was very, very hungry at the time. Not that The Night Circus needs much help from the likes of me: my impression is that The Night Circus was one of the most visible books at this year’s BEA.

Up Next: Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Heart of John Williams’s Stoner

John Williams’s Stoner isn’t what it sounds like: Stoner is the life story of William Stoner, a rather staid professor of English at the University of Missouri, not reefer madness. Stoner is my kind of novel, a portrait of an imperfect human whose life looks unhappy, even futile, from the first page – Stoner’s career is undistinguished and he experiences strife at work and home – but keeps on keeping on thanks to a lurking, low-key passion for life.

I know “passion” sounds horribly banal but I’m borrowing it from Williams, whose writing in Stoner is beautifully plain and understated, appropriate to its subject, as he characterizes Stoner, his colleagues, and family through actions and expressions. Here’s Stoner on his wedding day, looking at his wife with her parents :

“Then he saw Edith. She was with her father and mother and her aunt; her father, with a slight frown on his face, was surveying the room as if impatient with it; and her mother was weeping, her eyes red and puffed above her heavy cheekbones and her mouth pursed downward like a child’s.”

The match, of course, is pretty disastrous: Stoner is a country boy, raised on a farm and sent to college to learn about agriculture only to become an academic, and Edith is from a well-to-do St. Louis family. Edith misses her European tour, which must have been a particularly big deal just after World War 1, so she can marry Stoner. Their honeymoon is described with words like “isolation” and “prison.” Their daughter Grace is “happy with her despair” toward the end of the book.

But Stoner isn’t altogether dissatisfied, despite sometimes feeling numb or seeing “nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.” He values the purity of academia, a place removed from the world and remembers how one of his friends said, in their youth, that academics are “better than those on the outside, in the muck, the poor bastards of the world.” The same guy calls Stoner “our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho.” Though Stoner realizes in middle age that academics are “of the world,” he still identifies himself with academia and cannot leave because he would be nothing.

At the end of the book, as Stoner dies, he feels pain, hears laughter, sees his wife’s face, and feels joy on a summer afternoon before he loses touch, literally, with what has given his life meaning. Williams gives Stoner – and Stoner, a beautifully crafted piece of existentialism – a sendoff that is fitting in its simple, melancholic but reassuring elegance. I’d recommend Stoner to anyone but think non-native readers of English might especially enjoy its uncomplicated, expressive language.

Up next: Maybe a report from Book Expo America. Next book post will be about Hans Keilson’s The Death of the Adversary.

Disclosures: I bought my copy of Stoner at the library book sale but should note that I have discussed literature in translation with New York Review Books. I look forward to seeing NYRB at Book Expo America this week!

Image credit: Photo of Jesse Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, from Stevehrowe2, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Experimenting with Life in The Guinea Pigs

Do you ever finish reading a book, close it, open it back up, page through to refresh your memory, close the book again, and then think (or even say out loud) “Huh?” That’s what I did when I finished Ludvík Vaculík’s Morčata (The Guinea Pigs), in Káča Pláčková’s translation from the original Czech; Open Letter is reissuing the book this month.

The Guinea Pigs is a cryptic, not-so-long novel about Vašek, a bank worker, and his relationships with his wife, Eva; two sons, Vašek and Pavel; mysterious co-workers, and their guinea pigs. The mindless repetition of arranging banknotes in the same direction – and probably other stressful aspects of living away from nature in Warsaw Pact Prague – gets to Vašek. Not only does he cuff his sons fairly regularly (and even throw rocks at them once!) but he begins to conduct odd experiments on the guinea pigs, late at night while he toils over bank paperwork. There are also problems at the bank: “And for that matter, why not admit it, we do steal.”

I could write about the abundant black humor and absurdity in The Guinea Pigs but, for me, the most striking aspect of The Guinea Pigs is the storytelling itself. Vašek (Father) tells his story primarily in the first-person, often directly addressing his readers and making us part of his world: on the second page he refers to “the brighter ones among my readers.” Two pages later he calls us “my dear young readers,” and on the next page he writes, “A viper, children, is a poisonous snake.” The story, as you’ve probably deduced, blackens tremendously over 180 pages, beginning as a darkly humorous tale and ending with an unexpected eleven-word sentence that completes the book perfectly, peculiarly. Please, dear people, if you read this book, do not look at the last page until you finish the book.

I read The Guinea Pigs as a Soviet-era scary folk tale of a novel that, though hardly a bedtime story, uses common motifs from fairytales. Trust me, this is the nifty part: it’s fun and instructive to look at how Vaculík incorporates into The Guinea Pigs many of the 31 elements that Russian scholar Vladimir Propp found in fairy tales. For example, Number 2, “Interdiction: the Hero Is Warned,” comes early on, when one of Eva’s young pupils predicts that someone (human or guinea pig?) in Vašek’s strange household will die. The girl is a storybook-like character herself, a seer who even knows Vašek carries guinea pigs in his pocket. Many of Propp’s other “narratemes” appear in the book, such as the classic Number 11, “Departure: “The Hero leaves on a mission.” There are also Vašek’s attendant quest for truths and discoveries of nasty things. Fairy tale-like elements, like a cottage outside the city, also turn up.

Of course fairy tale motifs are inherently flexible, and Vaculík works creatively, making Vašek a dualistic character – both hero and villain – someone who seeks the truth about strange goings-on at the bank even as he does horrible things to animals and his own family. Though Vašek can narrate (most of) his own story, he’s not fully in control of his destiny –none of us are, but he’s in the Soviet bloc, too – plus he has some complexes, too:

“The hardest thing in the world, girls and boys, is to change your life by your own free will. Even if you are absolutely convinced that you’re the engineer on your own locomotive, someone else is always going to flip the switch that makes you change tracks, and it’s usually somebody who knows much less than you do.”

Vašek offers another take on free will later in the book, tossing out this gem of a line, “The only thing anybody can kiss, when I select a book of delicate poetry from the bookcase, is my ass.” He continues his rant about doing as he pleases, then asks, “Was this enlightened thought [about free will and its limits] what my colleague Karásek had in mind when he brought up the significance of guinea pigs?” Yes, I think it is. Vašek lets his mind wander freely as he picks his nose, comparing (I think) the peculiar meaninglessness of human lives and guinea pig lives. It all reminds me of a college classmate who referred to the Habitrail of her life, though she did not invoke the taboo of nose picking. In the end, the root of our limited free will is, of course, the old inevitability of death, foretold by the pupil – and it is death, too, that grounds this mischievous existentialist laugh of a novel about the experiment of life.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of The Guinea Pigs from Open Letter; the book is a May 2011 release. A big thank you to Chad Post!

Up next: I’m not sure.

Photo credit: Portrait of Fori, from rosym, via

Sunday, April 24, 2011

I’m Still Here! & Happy (Belated) World Book Day

Yes, I’m still here, though I’ve been on a bit of an unexpected hiatus. Fortunately, most of the reasons are related to good things: I had a wonderful time at the London Book Fair where I was so caught up in the Russian market focus program that – oh, horrors! – I didn’t even realize until a few days ago that I missed hearing Kazuo Ishiguro. London wore me out but now I’m looking forward to Book Expo America next month.

A Russian friend wrote to me late last night, wishing me a happy World Book Day… I’d seen articles mentioning the significance of April 23 – among other things, it’s the day Shakespeare and Cervantes died and the day Nabokov was born – but didn’t realize until today that it’s formally known as World Book and Copyright Day. Quite apt, considering concerns about piracy and electronic books.

In a related note, I picked up a special copy of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas at the London Book Fair: it’s part of a World Book Night 2011 program, under which 25 books, in print runs of 40,000 each are being distributed… a million books in total, all to be tracked online, with the hope that people will share the books with friends. It’s a great idea, supported by dozens of publishers, patrons, and sponsors. The titles are varied to capture diverse readers: from Love in the Time of Cholera to poems by Seamus Heaney, from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. And so on. World Book Night will be celebrated on April 23 in 2012.

So happy World Book Day, a day late!