Books dcozy Read in 2009
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As it's the first book I've finished in 2009 it would be premature to say that this will be the best book I read this year, but I feel certain that it will be a remarkable year indeed if I come across anything better than Álvaro Mutis's The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. This is not my first encounter with Mutis's protagonist; I met him first in an earlier collection of Mutis's Maqroll tales. New York Review Books, though, has, in this anthology, augmented those stories with others, and allowed Mutis to add what I take to be new material binding the various accounts together, as well as an excellent introduction by Francisco Goldman. If you have not had the pleasure of making Maqroll's acquaintance, don't wait. These are adventure stories for adults. Set in Majorca, Amazonia, the San Fernando Valley, Malaysia, and elsewhere, told with wit, panache, and profundity, they are what fiction should be—one of the things it should be—and too often is not. Maqroll can stand with any mythic hero one cares to name, but as he's a sailor it is hard to resist the notion that Mutis has given us another Odysseus, another Ulysses.
Sounds like you have gotten your reading year off to a wonderful start! Thanks for joining us again, dcozy!
> welcome, good to see u here, dcozy. ur list will surely be a source of worthy book ideas. Mutis is now duly entered into my list of new authors to look out for.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. Has anyone read anything else by Mr Mutis?
Has anything by Mutis other than the Maqroll books been published in English? I would love to read some of his poetry, and may give it a shot in Spanish, but a bilingual edition would be a big help. (Some of the poetry, it appears, also chronicles Maqroll's adventures and misadventures.) I would also like to read his memoir of the time he spent in prison in Mexico.
I've got The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll on my TBR -- may have to move it up!
The Mansion, a collection of Mr Mutis' short stories, was published in 2004. The other books I've located online are also about Maqroll.
Although one is sometimes confused by editor William J. Tyler's definition of modanizumu (modernism)—is it a concern with things modern? a collection of stylistic preferences? work written during a particular period of time?—one is never in doubt that Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913-1938 is an important anthology (much of the work it includes is previously untranslated or difficult to find) that is essential to exploring a more or less (in English, anyway) uncharted region of Japanese literary history. Among the most arresting work in the collection is Kawabata's film script for "Pages of Madness," Kanoko Okamoto's "The Love of Kishimo," and Jun Ishikawa's "Mars' Song," but there's lots here that is diverting.
I first read Flashman in high school and loved it. I picked it up again, three and a half decades later, when its author, George MacDonald Fraser, died a short time ago and found it just as amusing this time around to follow cad and coward Harry Flashman from England through India to Afghanistan where he stumbles, in his typically craven fashion, into the Great Game. That behind Flashman's apparent heroism lies cowardice of the first order reminds us, of course, that behind the might of British Empire lie unsavory truths, but its not ponderous revelations like that one that keep us reading. Rather it's the appalled laughter that Harry's high jinks give rise to that holds, between snorts, our attention.
I like that branch fiction of fiction-writing that is sometimes called experimental, but it's novels such as Jane Gardam's Old Filth that remind me that art is a big tent: there's room for David Markson, certainly, but also for writers such as Gardam who work in a more traditional vein. To say that Gardam's mode is traditional, though, is not to imply that her book simple or simple-minded. Rather, the manner in which different moments in Old Filth's life (Filth is an acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong") are woven together produces a novel almost Cubist in its complexity, and also a realism more powerful than the merely mimetic. Filled with tragedy, comedy, and characters that march straight out of Dickens, this is a novel not to be missed. Shirley Hazzard is one of the finest novelists now working; in Gardam we have an author to whom we can turn during the long waits between Hazzard's novels and doing so, we will be delighed to find an author who marshals similar wit, lightness, and intelligence.
I read Transit of Venus years ago when it was first published, and kept waiting and waiting and waiting for a new book by her. I did read The Great Fire when it finally came out, and while I found the subject interesting and it was well-written, it did not engage me as did The Transit of Venus. Have you read Hazzard's non-fiction work?
I too loved Transit of Venus, and I also enjoyed The Great Fire but I agree with you that it wasn't up to the level of Transit of Venus. I have read some of Hazzard's nonfiction and earlier work, and it's well-written and interesting but . . . just not up to T of V. By the way, her latest collection, The Ancient Shore is depressingly repetitive.
Kenneth B. Pyle's Japan Rising is a model of intelligent historical analysis. He offers a convincing thesis early on--Japan changes in response to outside pressure rather than as a result of internal conviction--and successfully supports it in a long but never tedious overview of Japanese history. Pyle's book is also a model of good scholarly writing, and in fact I have been using it as such with a talented young student and I see from her papers that she has learned a lot from it. Not all scholars are good writers; Pyle is.
Rawi Hage, in a book that combines thriller with poetry (it teeters, at times, on the brink of being horribly overwritten, but at other times it's right on the money), shows us how a boy who's come up in a war zone internalizes the violence and macho posturing that characterize his surroundings. Not a pretty read, but De Niro's Game is a compelling picture of life in East Beirut, with excursions to Paris and, through the horrible (and true) story a character tells, Israel.
Journey to the Land of the Flies by Aldo Buzzi
Aldo Buzzi is a master of the personal essay. His mastery is evident in how effortless he makes his achievement look. His essays may appear to be random jottings, observations, and eccentric erudition, but they are arranged in such a way that one has to struggle (but always relents) to keep a smile from appearing on one's face. The first essay in the collection, "Chekhov in Sondrio," is the best thing I've ever read on the Russians (and several other topics as well). For example: "Like cabbages, cucumbers are an essential vegetable for Russians. Céline says, 'Over there a man fills his belly with cucumbers,' and Saltykov-Shchedrin, the satirist, sententiously, 'Man needs everything: butter, cabbages, cucumbers.'"
> 'one has to struggle (but always relents) to keep a smile from appearing on one's face' -- what a nice thing to say.
I'll be teaching a class in academic writing from April, so I've been casting around for an appropriate textbook. I think I've found it. They Say, I Say really does teach "the moves that matter in persuasive writing," and far from worrying that Graff and Birkenstein's use of templates will limit students' creativity, I am convinced that having these resources available will give students the ability--and therefore the liberty--to make the arguments they want and need to make. Highly recommended for anyone who teaches writing or wants to learn to write better.
>21 dcozy: Sounds absolutely lovely. I will have to hunt it down in the near future.
The Hunter by Richard Stark is noir at its noirest in part because it features an antihero as antiheroic as any ever created. The unrelentingly stark and austere language in which the novel is written further contributes to the novel's dark charm, and is all the evidence one needs that Stark (pseudonym of Donald Westlake) is one of the master stylists of modern letters. John Banville is only slightly over the top when he writes that "Richard Stark's Parker novels are among the most poised and polished fictions of their time and, in fact, of any time."
The Edogawa Rampo Reader
As was the case with the author from whose name Edogawa Rampo derived his pseudonym, to grasp this author's achievement one needs to read both his stories and his essays. Thus Kurodahan Press, in making available this exquisitely edited collection of both fiction and nonfiction, has done readers a great service . The author was, as he relates in one of the essays, a devotee, when a boy, of popular fiction, and entering the fantastic twists and turns of his stories one is soon lost in them the way, when boys and girls ourselves, we became the characters in the romance, the adventure, we were reading. The essays are similarly fascinating for the light they throw on an author devoured by many Japanese, but little known in the West. The piece on Poe's encounter with Charles Dickens, and Poe's reaction to Barnaby Rudge, is alone worth the price of admission.
I am, it seems, unable to appreciate a certain much loved strand of writing from the British Isles. While intermittently clever, the English jocular as exemplified by P.G. Wodehouse (who I will, I promise, give another chance), never seems to me as delightful as it clearly is for its devotees. Terry Pratchett, both in the passion his fans feel for his books, and in the whimsical—with a capital "W"—humor that drives his work, would seem to me to be Wodehouse's anointed successor. Having finished The Color of Magic, the first in the much-loved Discworld series, I have to say, however, that my reaction is the same as to the work of Bertie and Jeeves's begetter: a shrug of the shoulders. As with Wodehouse, however, too many intelligent readers feel that Pratchett is the cat's pajamas for me to reject his work out of hand. I imagine I'll try another Discworld somewhere down the line.
#30 I felt the same way about The Color of Magic. I haven't been able to figure out what all the fuss is about. Maybe I, too, should try again.
Dare I add that I also can't seem to get into books by the very popular Neil Gaiman. I tried American Gods and got about half way through, and then gave up. *runs around the corner to hide*
Edited cause I listed the wrong book of Gaiman's that I tried to read.
>30 dcozy:: dcozy
Well, though I am a serious fan of Pratchett, I don't care for The Colour of Magic. We were just discussing the various "series" in the Discworld books and how people like one but not the other, while others feel vice-versa.
Go to Message 172 & ff in this thread and you'll see some alternatives. If you didn't like The Colour of Magic, just reading the second book in the series won't be much better.
>31 loriephillips:: loriephillips
American Gods is not his most likable work. Try Neverwhere. If you don't care for that, then you might not be a Gaiman fan.
Thanks for the recommendation TadAD, I'm willing to try it sometime this year. I have Good Omens (oh no, Neil Gaiman AND Terry Prachett! ;)), it's been recommended by several people and I going to tackle it as well.
This is narrative history as it should be. Exquisitely written and filled with judgments measured and wise, it is astounding that Veronica Wedgewood could write such a book when still a very young woman. She published The Thirty Years War in 1938 with, perhaps, only the vaguest intimations that another disastrous war was soon to come to Germany. "They wanted peace," she writes, "and they fought for thirty years to be sure of it." I'm not necessarily convinced that the antagonists in many of our wars actually do want peace, but it is astounding how often those who do want peace, and also freedom, human rights, and other things we can all agree are good resort to war, when war is, to quote Wedgewood writing in terms that can be applied to many if not all wars, "morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its causes, devious in its course, and futile in result."
Those who could never take the British Empire at face value, or entirely seriously, will relish the amusing and appalling tales Ignacio Padilla, in Antipodes, spins out of his reflections on that far-flung conglomeration of places and people. Imagine Kipling refracted through Borges with a dash of the surrealists for good measure.
> 37 Padilla seems to be an author i would want to seek out. thanks for mentioning him.
Antipodes looks interesting. I will have to be on the lookout for it. Thanks for the recommendation.
Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London is, as the subtitle tells us, "a story with interpolations and bifurcations." With the flipping back and forth that the digressions occasion, I managed to read the book not entirely in the order that, if I had adhered to Roubaud's suggestions, I perhaps should have. But only perhaps. In fact, I think Roubaud would be delighted that, in misunderstanding which part I was to turn to next, I created my own book. Indeed, as Dominic Di Bernardi writes in the afterword, Rouboud actually envisioned a system (one that, thanks to advances in computer technology, has almost been realized) whereby readers could summon up their own unique versions of The Great Fire of London. Excuse all this discussion of the form of Roubaud's novel, but form is one of the things it's about, while at the same time encompassing reading, writing, life, and death, most notably the death of the author's wife, Alix Cléo Roubaud. More precisely, the book is not about Alix's death, but about Jacques Roubaud's attempt to come to terms with life after that death. The Great Fire of London is a fascinating read, and one that feels—as the most adventurous novels always do, inexhaustable. It is a novel that begs to be reread, with attention shifted in each subsequent pass back and forth through the pages, from one branch, one bifurcation, one interpolation, to another. Kudos to the Dalkey Archive Press for their continuing commitment to literature.
Formidable, but fun. As you probably know, both Roubaud and Calvino were affiliated with the oulipo, and yes, The Great Fire of London, though quite different than If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, shares with it a similarly digressive structure.
Alexander McCall Smith's Espresso Tales is pure froth, but sometimes, like the crema on a well-made espresso, a little froth is necessary.
The Great Fire of London sounds like a fascinating book. I'll add this to the tbr mountain.
Reinhard Drifte's Japan's Foreign Policy in the 1990s was disappointing largely for reasons that are evident in the title and are inevitable in topical works: it is dated. Those interested in, for example, a history of the trade wars of the 1990s will find much meat here. Those who want to know how things stand a decade and more later will be, of course, disappointed. Add to this that Drifte, if my guess is right, is writing in a language other than his native one and produces prose clunky and confusing, and the result is a book that is a chore to get through.
"Trollope's novels," wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne, "are solid, substantial, written on the strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale," and this seems just right. Every Trollope novel I have read is substantial, and, in a quiet way, inspired. Can You Forgive Her? is the first of the Palliser novels, an epic series that focuses largely on politics. In Can You Forgive Her? Trollope is mostly concerned with sexual politics, which in Victorian novels inevitably means marriage and the attendant financial arrangements. As Kate Flint, quoting J.A. Banks, notes in her excellent introduction: "Trollope may be read not for information about the feminist movement in the objective sense, 'but for deep insights into the nature of the opposition which that movement had to face,'" and this is surely correct, but the novel is no weaker for that. If you already enjoy Trollope, plunge right into the world of the Pallisers. If you have yet to give Trollope a try, what are you waiting for?
Hideo Okuda's Lala Pipo is Sex in the City if the city is Tokyo, or more precisely that Tokyo neighborhood called Shibuya, and the sex is mostly commercial and not necessarily indicative of any strong human connection among the participants. It is a series of connected stories--and the connections established by characters who drift between the tales almost always feel right rather than forced--that addresses many of the things that the Japanese people--or rather the more salacious Japanese media--get all het up about. Promiscuous high school girls, perverted nerds, hopeless freeters, housewives starved for sex, amoral young men preying on innocent--or perhaps not so innocent--young women: all are present here. That each of the characters who have apparently died as the book progresses turn out, at novel's end, not to have done so, makes it clear that Okuda, who is identified as a "pop novelist" on the book-cover, is not interested in gritty realism so much as entertaining his readers, and this he succeeds in doing.
Thanks for the mention of Can You Forgive Her. I've never heard of Anthony Trolope. I'm always excited to learn of new authros.
I've been meaning to read Trolloppe for years. Thanks for the nudge.
I only read one A Trollope (and a mess of J), but I found it very sad and depressing. I did see in some thread here that the one they'd just read was not. Too bad I didn't make a note!
Have read any Dickens? A lot of people seem to feel they have to choose one or the other of the great English Victorian novelists, but as someone who read and enjoyed a contemporary pop Japanese novel immediately after Can You Forgive Her?, it seems to me there's room in one's list of pleasures for both. They are both tremendous at giving you a fully fleshed out look at life in Victorian England.
#50: Susan, that would have been me, I think - I just finished Doctor Thorne recently and I do not think it is depressing in any way. You know from the outset it is going to have a happy ending.
#51: I appreciate both Trollope and Dickens. I just discovered Trollope last year and have only read 3 of his books to date, but I like his works thus far a lot. Dickens has been one of my personal favorites for years now.
Yes, I've read some Dickens, but want to read more. He had such a great insight into human behavior.
Love Hotel City, edited by Andrew Stevens
It's hard to imagine anyone liking all of the stories in this collection of Tokyo tales, and it's quite easy to imagine many readers not liking any of them. In most of them the author is trying much too hard to be (to resurrect a tired old buzz-word) transgressive, and usually to very little effect. (If anal sex is really the most shocking thing you can come up with, as seems to be the case with a couple of the authors whose work is collected here, well, let's just say you're no Bill Burroughs.) In too many cases the stories are reminiscent of the "ka-ka," "poo-poo," "pee-pee," that a toddler, having learned that those words will get a rise out of the grown-ups, bellows in company. At the end of the day the words, and the fact that a child would use them in an effort to be "transgressive," really aren't that shocking . . . or interesting.
One of the best intellectual histories I have ever read, George Makari's Revolution in Mind is a masterful recounting of the fight to establish psychoanalysis as a reputable field (also the attendant infighting). Now, for the first time, I have the players straight and understand which teams they were playing for: I can differentiate Reich from Reik, Freud (Sigmund) from Freud (Anna), and Horney from Klein. To invent, as Freud and his followers did, an academic, therapeutic, medical, philosophical discipline is a remarkable thing; just as remarkable is how well Makari has told the tale.
I"ve been looking at Revolution in Mind in the bookstore for a while and debating whether to buy it, but your review is urging me on . . .
I'm generally allergic to books that fall into the category that might be called "English jocular." All that whimsy with a capital "W," for me, grows quickly tiresome. To the very short list of exceptions to this aversion (The Pickwick Papers and . . . I'm sure there must be others) I can now add Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm, a book I've put off reading for years, largely because those who recommend it have always seemed to do so a bit too ardently. It is, in fact, a very funny book primarily thanks to Gibbons's skill at skewering the sort of English pastoral writing of, for example, D.H. Lawrence (no thanks) or Thomas Hardy (love him—go figure): all that wild lust for the land, that sort of thing. I won't become one of those devotees who make their way through the book yearly, but Cold Comfort Farm did give rise to a few laughs, and that's always a good thing. Now, to return to a more ascerbic brand of humor: Samuel Beckett's letters.
Olen Steinhauer pulls a fast one on us in The Confession, the second book in his series set in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Soviet empire. He does this in two ways: first, by shifting the focus from the protagonist of Bridge of Sighs, Emil Brod, to one of Brod's colleagues in the militia, Ferenc Kolyeszar (surely he learned this trick from Ed McBain's 87th Precinct mysteries), but more importantly, he surprises us by endowing the book with a greater complexity and depth than was present in his first (extremely enjoyable) book. I'm eager to move on to the next in the series, 36 Yalta Boulevard.
Divided Mind is a short book—just 45 pages—with more in it than many more ample tomes. It is a collection of essays by George Scialabba, a freelance thinker much influenced by the philosopher Richard Rorty. With Rorty, he brings a well-schooled sensibility to bear on the problem of how to create a society that allows everyone a fair shot at pleasure, but also enables those so inclined to pursue more arcane escstasies. He writes of topics this weighty, invoking Nietzsche, D.H. Lawrence, Orwell, Plato and others, with a tremendous lightness and wit. One hopes more of his work will be made available to those unfortunate enough miss his byline when it pops up in the (disappearing) venues for intelligent essays. That Divided Mind is all but unavailable is made slightly more bearable by the knowledge that a new book by Scialabba, What are Intellectuals Good For, is forthcoming.
Everything that drops from Ian Buruma's pen is worth reading, and his second novel, The China Lover, is no exception. It is surprising that no one has thought, until now, to base a historical novel on the life of that chameleon-like actress Yoshiko (aka Shirley) Yamaguchi. Buruma does so with aplomb, giving us a taut narrative that provides all the satisfactions of a page turner, but at the same time is a nuanced look at Japanese and world history—as well as history through the Japanese eyes of Yamaguchi and others—from pre-war Manchuria to late twentieth century Beirut. (Peripheral note 1: a character at the center of the novel is based quite closely on a friend of mine. That made for an interesting reading experience. Peripheral note 2: Buruma's first novel, Playing the Game, is, I think, a minor classic. If you stumble across a copy don't hesitate to dive into it.)
I haven't read either if the books you mention, but as I said, I'm confident that whatever Buruma writes will be worth reading. In Occidentalism he's wearing his public intellectual hat, and in Inventing Japan he's drawing on his long experience with Japan. It probably just depends on which of his subjects is more interesting to you.
I, too, am addicted to swimming, but after reading Roger Deakin's account of what he calls "wild swimming" in Waterlog I feel that my regular laps in the chlorinated pool are, well, a bit tame. Inspired by John Cheever's story "The Swimmer," Deakin set out to swim his way through England's rivers and lakes, and seems to have gotten wet in most of of them, beginning with the moat that surrounds the farmhouse where he lived. That tags for this book might include: travel, memoir, natural history, swimming, environment, England, history, and probably a few more that aren't coming to mind now just begins to hint at the book's riches.
#68: Waterlog sounds fascinating. I just ordered a copy and cannot wait to get my hands on it. Thanks for the recommendation!
#70: I will be interested in seeing your reviews on those books, too. I did not realize both of them had been published posthumously - I had thought it was just Wildwood. How sad.
Nigel Williams's Hatchett and Lycett is a very busy book, with plots and sublots sprinting off in all directions. In its abundance of event, and events of all kinds, it refuses to fit neatly into a genre: there are elements of murder mystery (the book includes two fairly distinct plots of that nature), farce (much of which is very funny), and tragedy (WWII, Hitler, Dunkirk). It does provide a glimpse of England circa 1939-1940 that seems to me convincing (a yank too young to have been there), falling neither into the lack of perspective with which all but the most gifted contemporary authors would have viewed the events, nor into the retrospective adulation that makes anyone who was around during those times, at least in the USA, into a representative of "the greatest generation."
The similarities between the terrorists (or revolutionaries, take your pick) in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and more recent terrorists (or jihadis, take your pick) seem to me less striking than many have maintained, but Conrad's novel is no less riveting for that. As in his other work, almost every sentence seems to work on more than one level, and the recurring motifs he uses to tie things together are effective in establishing a deep coherence between the novel's events and characters. In addition to those events and characters, one also gets some nice descriptions of a foggy, dripping, muddy London that is still, very much, "the big smoke."
In too much science fiction the future is American, or if not American, at least first world: an extension of the first-world present. And considering that our present world is predominantly non-white, the denizens of the future (there are, of course, exceptions to this) are conspicuously pale. Ian McDonald, therefore, deserves kudos for examining a future India in River of Gods and Cyberabad Days, and especially for doing it so well. Cyberabad Days is a collection of seven longish short stories in which McDonald demonstrates that he is enough of a master of the short form that even those not usually interested in the visions of the future that science fiction offers (a future that will probably differ in India from what it will be in New York) will find his tales a delight and will wonder, given the way the last story ends, whether we'll return, in the future, to his future India.
First of all, thanks, alcottacre, for being such a constant reader of my humble thread.
The two India books are the only McDonalds I've read, though I also have Brasyl, his book about a future Brazil, and will get to it eventually. If you give Terminal Cafe a go, do let me know how it is.
And I'm sure you'll enjoy The Secret Agent. I'm currently eying Under Western Eyes.
You are quite welcome! I enjoy reading about books outside my normal purview and your reading list challenges me, so thank you!
Your thread is not humble. You read interesting books, and come up with many titles and authors I haven't heard of or want to try. I don't post here much, but I'm a faithful reader of your thread. :)
..and to add to arubabookwoman's comments, I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your reviews. You vary your tone beautifully and in a way that keeps the thread always interesting, and I love reading them - even when I'm not so kee on the sound of the book you've reviewed!!
Thanks, everyone, for your kind remarks about my squibs. I'm glad people enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them.
yes, please add me to the list of those who check your thread regularly and enjoy learning about all the interesting books you find to read.
Have his Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers
I have now read, with only a bit of skimming, an entire Dorothy L. Sayers novel. I won't make that mistake again.
Sorry you did not like the Sayers. Maybe your next read will be better for you!
Howard French's A Continent for the Taking, like all the best writing about places we know little about—and most of us in the West do know little about "the dark continent"—is an excellent corrective to the myths, the complacency, the condescension that characterize common views of Africa. It is also excellent at exposing the shabby political compromises that have given rise to, and exacerbated, the many difficulties that have beset countries such as Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Having spent some of his teen-age years in West Africa, having married an African, and having served as the New York Times's man in Africa, French has tremendous sympathy with the place, a fearless intellect, and a fluent pen: this book is essential for anyone interested in Africa today.
#85: Sounds very good and an excellent addition to Continent TBR. Thanks for yet another great recommendation.
The most chilling dystopian novels are those set not in a distant future, but in one close enough that if we blur our eyes a little it can seem almost present. Jack Womack has given us just such a book in Random Acts of Senseless Violence, his portrait of a New York City gone more savage than most metropolises are—most of the time—at present. The book is the diary of a twelve year old girl whose Bourgeois Bohemian parents slide down the economic ladder as their city collapses around them. It is a bildungsroman in which the trajectory is not simply downward (though the girl grows increasingly feral), but also upward (as she grows stronger, more independent, and more comfortable with her sexuality). Womack mirrors these changes brilliantly in the girl's language which decays and blossoms along with the dying world she is stuck in.
South by South Bronx by Abraham Rodriguez is one of those noirish mysteries that because, even as it indulges in many of the genre's conventions, it flouts them as well, will not satisfy those seeking the conventional, but will be good fun for more adventurous readers (those not obsessed with having the narrative neatly wrapped up for them on the last page). Not only, however, is it a journey through the mean streets of the South Bronx (and also a visit with some artistic, bohemian, Puerto Ricans who live there). It is, at the same time, a reflection on how art gets made. The writer writing the book we are reading is a character in the book we are reading: just the sort of thing to drive those addicted to "good old fashioned stories" crazy, but that will delight those who like other kinds of good old fashioned stories.
It's tempting to think that a novel that is 900 pages in large-format hardcover must certainly be a sprawling mess. Almost any book fitting that description would be. Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, however, is anything but a baggy monster. It is, instead, a book whose generous form is perfectly adapted to the story, the many stories, Chandra tells; it is a suitable container for one of its most important characters, the city of Mumbai. Life in all its messiness is what Chandra celebrates, and that life, our life, is all the more savory because it is always in jeopardy—one of the novel's plots involves a threatened nuclear bombing of Mumbai—, and no less desirable for the misery, the compromises, the pain, the failures, that, along with all the good stuff, such a blast would bring to a close. Chandra's celebration of life, of the many lives of his characters, characters that are big enough that we don't feel we know them completely even even after we've turned that 900th page, is a reminder of how good novels in the Victorian tradition can be.
#91: I already have that one on the Continent and one of these days I will actually get to it!
Hello dcozy, I don't know how I've overlooked your thread but now that I've found it, I've starred it and I'll be back. I find your selections to be very electic, at least for me, and I have abscounded with many of your titles, thus added them to my Tipping Tower of Tomes.
Your reviews are very succinct and intelligent all without being haughty and found them quite enjoyable.
I love your description of Sacred Games. I, too, am a fan of that book.
Thanks for your kind comments. It's not hard to overlook a thread or two when there are 856 other threads jostling for your attention.
rebeccanyc: I would hesitate to call Chandra's novel perfect--I'd hesitate to call most anything perfect--but it really does seem to me that he's managed to make the myriad pieces of his massive book cohere, and given its size, and the disparateness of its parts, that really is something.
Thanks, all of you, for reading and commenting.
Richard J. Samuels argues, in Securing Japan, that, with the end of the Cold War, Japan's security policy was thrown into flux, a state from which it has yet to emerge. What is clear is that whatever direction things go, they will not remain the same. If the Yoshida doctrine ("cheap-riding," or letting the USA take care of Japan's security concerns while Japan takes care of business) survives at all it will be in a truncated form, and indeed it has, in Samuels's phrase, already been "salami-sliced" down to a nub of what it once was.
In the Image of God is the penultimate book of the two series Raven wrote centered on a collection of mostly not very nice--but always amusing--upper crust Brits. Some have argued that Raven has lost his zest in these late books, but those with a taste for his exuberant paganism and wit won't want to miss a word. I wonder how long I'll be able to resist diving into the last of the Ravens, and where I should turn when I've finished it.
This well-written and brief introduction to formal logic is intended to be for beginners, and it is. That doesn't mean, however, that Logic: A Very Short Introduction by Graham Priest won't bust your brain, at least if you have as much trouble with abstract thought as I do. Having one's brain busted from time to time, however, is a treat, an excellent work-out. I recommend this trip to the mental gymnasium to anyone eager to work up an intellectual sweat.
We need a new word: künstler-comic?
Well, maybe not.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi's account of his journey from schoolboy cartoons to the center of the Japanese manga industry during its heyday is a fascinating account of the artist as a young man. In it, with the consummate artistry we have come to expect, thanks to Drawn & Quarterly's ongoing edition of his work, Tatsumi lets us know what it was like to work as a manga-ka in the 1950s and 60s, and also how his country and the world changed during that time. The young artist who is Tatsumi's stand-in often voices his frustration at being unable, due to economic constraints, to work on long-form comics. In A Drifting Life Tatsumi, over 834 pages, is able to stretch out and do just that. Having turned the last of those many pages one is hungry for more. "I've drifted along, demanding an endless dream from gekiga," Tatsumi concludes his masterpiece, "And I . . . probably . . . always will" (ellipses in the original). Dream on, Mr. Tatsumi.
#100: That one looks like something both my oldest daughter and I would enjoy. Thanks for the recommendation!
The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1939-1940, the first volume of four, gives us a portrait of the artist as a young man, one who is by the end of the collection, in the aftermath of being stabbed, and under the shadow of a world about to go to war, poised to become the writer we know (but he didn't yet know) he could be. These missives, from a writer so reticent, a writer so skilled, rank with the great literary letters of all time and are, therefore, essential.
The thing about TV is that, even on the rare occasions when it's good, as with the HBO series "Rome," it makes one want to read. I'm grateful to the creators of that program for sending me to Tom Holland's Rubicon, a rip-roaring account of the the last years of the Roman Republic. It's narrative history at it's best (do non-specialists really enjoy any other kind of history?), and great fun to read. Holland, in prose that must be the envy of narrative historians everywhere, has given those of us with classics-deprived educations a stellar guide to those turbulent years.
#103: Ha! Finally beat you to the punch on one - read Rubicon several years ago. Whew - one I finally am not adding to the TBR Planet :)
I'm not sure how much I enjoy Julien Gracq's novels (or more accurately, novellas). I do know that I am fascinated by them. King Cophetua is the second I have read, and, very loosely, it follows the same template as the first, Château d'Argol: a character arrives for a visit in a remote place. The host is elusive (I had carelessly typed "illusive." Maybe I should have let the typo stand); something seems always about to happen, but never quite does. The language here is less baroque (as translated by Ingeborg M. Kohn) than was the prose of Château d'Argol (wrestled into English by Louise Varèse), and this slightly simpler register serves the story well. I'm not sure, as I wrote above, how much I enjoy Gracq; I am certain I will read more. In fact, I've already started his book of essays, Reading Writing.
36 Yalta Boulevard is the third taut thriller in Olen Steinhauer's series of books set in Central Europe. In this one he's brought us up to the 1960s, and the focus is on Brano Sev, a spy for the Romania-like country Steinhauer has created. The morose Sev's hands are far from clean, but Steinhauer nevertheless manages to make him sympathetic. While this book is not quite as tightly written as the previous entry in the series, The Confession, it is formally well thought out, and once again, by changing protagonists, settings, and decades, Steinhauer succeeds in compelling our interest and in making us eager to move on the next in the series, Liberation Movements.
When not actually reading them I'm always a bit suspicious of Michael Ondaatje's novels. The focus of his books, I imagine when they're not, in fact, in my hands, is a bit fuzzy, the modernism a bit soft-edged, the whole concoction a bit romantic. When I actually pick up one of his books, in this case his most recent novel, Divisadero none of those preconceptions is absolutely belied, but I am drawn in. Divisadero is certainly romantic, but what's wrong with that? The interest of the stories Ondaatje tells is heightened by the manner in which he slides the pieces of his narrative puzzles around, and though the modernism may not be as high as the high modernists who must have influenced Ondaatje, his novels are exquisitely crafted, and exquisitely his own. I am eager, now, to backtrack to his previous novel, Anil's Ghost.
You'll be interested to note that a character from In the Skin of a Lion appears in The English Patient. I attended a reading Ondaatje did in Tokyo some years back and asked him if, when he started The English Patient, he knew that this character would be part of it. He said he hadn't had any idea that the character would reappear.
I am supremely jealous that you have actually met Ondaatje!!! In the Skin of a Lion is about Hana's father, right? And Caravaggio is in it as well - which is great, because he was my favourite character from The English Patient.
I love when an author says that they had no idea certain things would happen in their novels - it really makes writing seem like it has a mind of its own, doesn't it?
Thanks, Cait86, for reminding me of the names of the characters that link those two novels. I remembered that there was a link but not the details.
My brief exchange with Ondaatje took place at the reception after his reading. He seemed a bit shy, and also jet-lagged. His reading--no surprise--was excellent.
Anyone else met authors? I was so thrilled this summer to meet Denise Chong who wrote The Concubine's Children and The Girl in the Picture*. She lives in my city and was hosting a garage sale! Very weird place to meet an author...She seemed humbly proud that I had read her books.
*The Girl in the Picture is about the little girl in the famous Life mag pic - a Vietnamese running from napalm, with her clothing burned off, and much of her skin burned too.
Ondaatje is just about the only famous graduate from my tiny alma mater. Shame on me, I haven't even read his books!
A slight novel, but perceptive and crisply written, Amélie Nothomb's Tokyo Fiancée turns one of the standard narratives of expat fiction—Western male goes off to Far East, meets exotic native woman, cross-cultural high-jinks ensue—on its head by making the active, if crude, Westerner a female and the passive and mysterious Easterner a Japanese man. Some of the set pieces about Japan won't seem all that fresh to those who know the country and the literature to which it has given rise, but other events Nothomb describes, those not experienced by all foreigners, but which—this is most definitely an autobiographical novel—evidently were experienced by Nothomb, are quite delightful, particularly her account of getting caught in a snow storm and nearly freezing to death on Kumotoriyama which, as Nothomb doesn't mention, is, at about 2000 meters, the highest peak in Tokyo.
Hi, just popping by to say I picked up Waterlog by Roger Deaken (posts 68/69) and I enjoyed it immensely. So thank you very much for the review.
I'm glad I didn't steer you wrong on Waterlog. I don't know if there's a direct connection, but I somehow find myself having agreed to participate in open-water ocean swimming race this coming weekend. It'll be my first time out, so wish me luck (I don't care if I win, but I don't want to come in last!).
Oh good luck! Must be difficult to race in sea.. I have problems when the swimming pool is full.
The second in Anthony Trollope's Palliser series of political novels, Phineas Finn is, like its predecessor, Can You Forgive Her?, a pleasure from start to finish. The emphasis is more on the political in Phineas Finn than in the first of the Palliser novels, but of course Trollope understands that to give us a complete picture of his times—and I think that's what he was endeavoring to do—he must also include the personal, a handful of more or less rocky examples of courtship and marriage. The protagonist, the self-obsessed opportunist, Finn, is a maddening character (though he ends up doing the right thing), but also, and this is why we can't dismiss him, he is human in a way that makes us cringe; we cringe because we recognize him in ourselves. We will be eager to see how he has matured when we meet him again in the fourth novel in Trollope's series, Phineas Redux. As in Can You Forgive Her? Trollope's treatment of women is hardly feminist, even in Victorian terms (in 1867, the year Phineas Finn was being written, John Stuart Mill proposed extending the franchise to women), but one thing he does understand is that a novel dealing only with the affairs of men would be an insipid thing indeed. Finally, Trollope is no Proust (who is?), but he's at least as good as Anthony Powell: one wonders why this sequence of novels is not spoken of in the same breath as the multi-volume examinations of their times that those authors produced.
After I finish Trollope's Barchester series, I fully intend to tackle the Palliser series. Glad to know that I have some good books to look forward to!
A novel about a woman who finds herself, after life as a Sussex housewife, alone in a London flat, Margaret Drabble's The Seven Sisters is more than it at first appears. The long opening section leads us to believe that the entire book will be a diary kept by the former housewife, and this might have been enough, but, trapped as we would have been in a rather cold old woman's head, it could have made for a claustrophobic read. In the sections that follow, however, Drabble plays some nifty novelistic tricks, and in so doing gives us a novel that (though in the end, perhaps we never do escape from her narrator's version) is more than it might otherwise have been. Side note: this is a novel with no significant male characters. At one time that might have made this novel radical, or even radically feminist. Now I don't suppose the marginal nature of the few male characters would cause many eyebrows to be raised, and that, of course, is as it should be.
In this elegantly written polemic, Beyond Pacifism: Why Japan Must Become a Normal Nation, William C. Middlebrooks argues that Japan needs to give up the increasingly flimsy pretense that it is a pacifist nation and become instead a "normal" nation. In his subtitle the author, as I have done, puts scare quotes around the word normal, and in doing so highlights the question foremost in my mind: is it correct, is it helpful, when speaking of nations, to make the word "normal" synonymous with "fully militarized"? However one answers that question this is a cleanly written presentation of the argument against Japan's retaining Article 9 of its constitution.
Although I finished it in early January, I imagined, upon turning the final page of Álvaro Mutis's Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it might well be the best book I would read all year. Now, more than halfway through the year, I will have to alter my judgement, not, of course, because Maqroll has slipped in my estimation, but rather because I have had the good fortune to stumble upon another masterpiece, Iain Sinclair's Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report. Sinclair, in this gem, interrogates the neighborhood where he has, for forty years, lived in the same house. In doing so he weaves the history of his neighborhood (with special attention to the sixties and seventies) into a fabric also enriched by excursions into geography, literature, memoir, polemic, and lots of other delectables. Sinclair is a walker, and as he walks Hackney's streets, he meets people and talks to them, and then walks the paths their words have laid down. The result is fascinating, and so is the prose: one is brought up short two or three times a page by a turn of phrase arresting in its rightness. Never been to London and not planning to go? Doesn't matter. Get your hands on this book now.
What fantastic reviews. I'm adding your last three books to the old wishNotebook.
#121: Looks like another good one, David. I will look for it! Thanks again for another great recommendation.
Thanks for the link to the Sinclair lecture. I can't wait to listen to it (and I expect other Sinclairites out there will also be grateful).
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy was one of those books that I knew I should read, or rather, should have read, not least because I was sure, from everything I had heard about it, that I would enjoy it immensely. The chance to visit Shandy Hall, the home Laurence Sterne named for the character whose life and opinions he shares with us, finally compelled me to pull it off the shelf, and it was the perfect companion on a trip through Scotland and England.
Tristram Shandy has been called a postmodern novel, a claim which is, on its face, incoherent: published in the 1760s, it is, of course, a pre-modern novel. One understands, however, what those making this outlandish claim mean. Like many of his postmodern epigones, Sterne is as concerned with the form of his novel as he is with the events that fill it, and the form that governs this anarchically ungovernable, exquisitely formed, work is the digression. I think I am right in saying that none of the tales that constitute the book is told straight through in standard first-this-happened-then-that-happened style. Those who are concerned, therefore, with finding out what happened will be frustrated. Those who can laugh at their readerly frustration will find Tristram Shandy a delight, and regret that Sterne's novel ends—to the extent that such a novel can be said to have an end—at nine volumes. The notes that accompany the Penguin Classic edition are helpful, and Dylanologist Christopher Ricks's introduction is superb. Like all introductions, however, it should be read after one has finished the book.
I have always liked Tristram Shandy. I am glad it kept you company in your travels.
Hi, just delurking to recommend the film based on Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. It's not a direct adpation but more of a "movie within movie" type of thing and is a lot of fun.
Tristram Shandy is VERY funny. I liked it very much. I agree it's not post-modern, but it certainly has been an influence in the development of post-modern fiction.
The Chalk Circle Man, the first in Madame Fred Vargas's series of Commissaire Adamsberg mysteries, was not nearly as satisfying as the hype around it had led me to believe it would be. It wasn't by any means bad (I made it to the last page), but it did not quite motivate the compulsive page-turning that one wants from a book of this sort. (I chose it hoping it would be just the thing to see me through a spell of jet-lag induced mental retardation.) One problem may be that Adamsberg, the main character is (by design) such a conundrum to himself and, therefore, to the reader, that it's hard to get any purchase on him. Perhaps his character will acquire a bit more flesh in subsequent volumes, volumes I just may, if the stars move into the correct alignment, be inclined to pick up, but won't rush right out to buy.
Sorry your last read was not better for you. I wish you better luck on the next one.
It's easy to think of Hardy as the darkest of the Victorian novelists, but Emily Brontë certainly gives him a run for his money. The gloom arises from different sources. For Hardy, the universe is at best indifferent, if not actively hostile to humankind's puny endeavors. For Brontë hell is other people. There's not one character in Wuthering Heights who one would actually like to know. They are pathologically cruel (Heathcliff), selfish and self-absorbed (Cathy, senior and junior), snobs (the Earnshaws) conniving (Ellen Dean), or entirely ineffectual (Lockwood). This is not to say, of course, unless one is the benighted sort of reader who only appreciates characters who might make good real-life friends, that Brontë's tormented lot are ever less than fascinating to read about. The book is virtually unputdownable, not least because of Brontë's wit, a scalpel she uses to more sardonic effect, I think, than Trollope or Dickens. Perhaps Thackery is her equal here?
A note on the introduction: After learning a lot form Christopher Ricks's introduction to Tristram Shandy I turned eagerly to Geoffrey Moore's introduction to Wuthering Heights. I needn't have bothered. In the future I will pay the extra few pennies for editions of the classics better than those offered by the Signet Classics series.
(I've just noticed that Signet appears, in editions later than mine, to have dumped Moore's less than satisfactory effort in favor of an introduction by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. Not having read it, I can't say whether this is an improvement.)
I'm glad you enjoyed Wuthering Heights - it is one of my favourite books ever. You are right about the characters - they are all nasty pieces of work, but I that is what makes the novel so interesting. Also, the prose is beautiful. I love the part when Catherine is telling Ellen Dean that her love for Edgar is like the leaves, but her love for Heathcliff is like the rock beneath her feet.
When I first arrived in Japan, way back in the Showa Era, many of the first Japanese I met, on learning that I was bookish, would immediately, and graciously, present me with a copy of Botchan by Natsume Soseki: I ended up with at least four copies on my shelf. I rather suspect Botchan occupies a place similar in the Japanese literary firmament to that occupied by Catcher in the Rye in the American galaxy—a sort of "Catcher in the Rice," if you will. That is, I assumed it was the sort of book that everyone was forced to read at some point in their lives, or felt they should have read, or had heard a lot of people describe as a masterpiece. I resolved, being the contrarian that I am, not to read it, a decision I stuck to for many years. Now comes the point where I should tell you that I finally did read it, and found it to be marvelous. That's half true. I did, after many years, and having sold all but one copy, open it and found it . . . okay. Not terrible, but not great.
I have, however, just completed another Soseki, Kokoro, and did, in fact find it marvelous. Written in 1914, it seems quite different from contemporary Western novels in its quiet simplicity, and its formal integrity. We are given three sections. In the first the narrator takes on an older man as a mentor; in the second we see the young man removed from Tokyo and his "sensei," and in the third we delve into Sensei's past and find out what made him the person he is. Soseki invites us—quietly, subtly—to slide these three puzzle pieces around, to attempt to make them cohere into a portrait of our young first person narrator.
It may be time for me to reread Botchan.
Once, somewhere on this site, someone put out an appeal for "poetry that reads like prose." I confess, I couldn't see point. If it's prose one wants, well, then, read prose.
That I don't have the same opinion about prose that reads like poetry is, perhaps, inconsistent of me. The poet Albert Goldbarth has given us just such a novel in his wonder-filled Pieces of Payne. A consideration of unity and fragmentation, Pieces of Payne is poetic (but always good, solid, prose) at the sentence level, but also at the level of its overall structure.
Thus, at the micro-level (though it's pretty macro- in its scope) we delight in sentences like:
"We could say that the ligatured psyche of the carnival hermaphrodite Ed-Edna; and the physically elided lives of Siamese twins; and (whether fraud or genuine) the blended speech of medium-cum-channeled-"spirit-mentor" . . . are outlandish variations on the dialogues that we're all, in small ways, welcomed into our consciousness, that sometimes override us unexpectedly: the seepage of a chill, unreasoned sadness; or the woes-erasing wave of gratuitous grace."
At the level of form we enjoy hopscotching (Goldbarth mentions Julio Cortázar as an inspiration) from main text to footnoted additions that draw on Goldbarth's wide and eccentric erudition (comic books, Dickens, science, science-fiction, and much more come into them). This leap from one thing to another owes much to the way poets sometimes work: placing ideas, not, at first glance, related, next to each other and allowing the reader to discover (or invent) associations.
Recommended for readers of the much missed Guy Davenport, and David Markson, who—jubilation—they tell us, is at work on something new.
"It's about doing paperwork (or avoiding doing paperwork), going to teas with your boss's wife, and overseeing village well-digging projects, as well as smoking pot, masturbating, and reading Marcus Aurelius."
That's Akhil Sharma in the introduction to English, August: An Indian Story by Upamanyu Chatterjee, incisively summing up the novel , and if that doesn't whet a reader's appetite, particularly a reader looking for something new out of India, something without the sickeningly sweet fetor of "magical realism," then I don't know what will. His account of the life of a slacker, forced to give up his citified ways (if not the vices mentioned above), when, as a member of the Indian civil service, he is sent to a backwater town, is often laugh-out-loud funny, and never less than amusing. It is also refreshing that the slacker-narrator never does find certainty about the path his life should take but instead, at the end, accepts that life is an uncertain business.
(I finished Kokoro just a bit before reading this. I sure seem to be reading about slackers a lot these days.)
Marek Krajewski's Death in Breslau is a satisfying thriller invigorated by the author's skill at evoking a Germany increasingly beclouded by the Nazi nightmare. Add to that the bonus that the author is not concerned with making any of his characters--even the "good" guys--moral paragons and one has a noirish historical thriller for grown-ups, a perfect contrast to perfect summer days.
#141: Looks like another good one. I will have to track down a copy. Thanks for the recommendation.
As a fan of Lazarillo de Tormes let me first affirm that I like a good picaresque as much as the next guy, and in its first sections, that's what I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal appears to be. In fact "picaresque" is an apt description of the novel throughout, but the depth the novel plumbs as Hrabal proceeds makes it a picaresque of unusual splendor, one that, having followed the protagonist through various baroque situations, finally brings him to rest in a cabin in the woods with only a cat, a horse, and a goat for company writing "this story of how the unbelievable became true." It's a story you shouldn't miss.
Michiko Kakutani loved Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, so I was a little hesitant to open it, but seeing that B.R. Myers loathed the book, and he's even more consistently wrong about contemporary fiction than Kakutani, encouraged me to give it a try.
I'm glad I did.
I believe it was Randall Jarrell who said that "a novel is a work of a certain length that has something wrong with it." I'm unsure of the context in which Schwartz uncorked that summation (which I quote from memory), but I would like to understand him to be saying that yes, because novels are of a certain size, there are always flaws, but those flaws, those Homeric nods, don't make them unworthy. In the plenitude that a maximalist novel such as Tree of Smoke offers there is enough—more than enough—to make the journey worthwhile.
Tree of Smoke is a Vietnam novel that will bring to mind Graham Greene (The Quiet American is invoked throughout), but also, and perhaps especially, the Robert Stone of Dog Soldiers, two writers who are always concerned with god—what god's presence—or his absence— entails. The novel starts slowly, but, in the manner of Stone, picks up pace as the characters' tie themselves in moral and spiritual knots. There are flaws: the writing could be tighter, details Johnson uses to build verisimilitude more assiduously checked, but in the end, even with those flaws, Tree of Smoke is an impressive achievement.
Tree of Smoke was one of my top reads for last year. I think your review captures its essence.
I discuss one of Johnson's bloopers (which, I hasten to add, is insignificant and in no way ruins the novel) here:
That's an interesting (and somewhat humorous) point. I wonder if Johnson has been made aware of it.
It also crossed my mind that he might be doing a sort of Pynchonesque thing with the funny names.
I've been hearing about Lee Child's Jack Reacher books for a while. Now that I've read Persuader, the seventh book in the series, I can say that it has everything a book of this type should have: action, good dialogue, tight writing, and a protagonist very much in the mold of Raymond Chandler's knight-errant, Philip Marlowe. No home, no clothes other than what he's got on his back, no friends, no family, no obligations: Reacher is about as errant as a knight can get, and thus a perfect fantasy figure for those of us who occasionally dream (and who doesn't?) of throwing off civilization's shackles (also being invincible). This is dick-lit (I'm not sure why this coinage of mine hasn't caught on) of the highest order.
As I said, I'd been meaning to check out Child's series for a while. What got me to finally do it was that Persuader was available in one of the free eBook libraries on the iPod Touch / iPhone app, Stanza. It was the first book I've read on an e-book reader, the aforementioned iPod Touch. The experience was . . . okay. I wouldn't absolutely object to reading a book in that format again, and I'll keep a few books loaded just in case I get caught without sometime, but somehow I can't imagine wanting to read anything much more demanding than a Reacheresque thriller electronically. Among all the various readers now available, good old paper and print books remain technologically leaps and bounds ahead of their rivals.
>149 dcozy: I wouldn't absolutely object to reading a book in that format again, and I'll keep a few books loaded just in case I get caught without sometime, but somehow I can't imagine wanting to read anything much more demanding than a Reacheresque thriller electronically
Very much concur with this - I have a copy of Burnt Shadows saved on my phone for "emergencies" but I think you're correct that small devices like that may be best for undemanding reading...
Historical novels, burdened by yards of fustian, are so often less than satisfying. John Fowles's A Maggot is an exception. Rather than piling on detail after detail in an attempt to impress us with the research he has done, Fowles offers only items that actually illuminate the period about which he is writing, the 1730s. His plot, told largely in testimonies by various characters to a lawyer commissioned to investigate the disappearance of a young lord, moves right along, but it is the voices that compel us to keep turning the pages. And the most beguiling voice of all is that of the author who, in the fashion of novelists working in the years of which he is writing, is not hesitant to intrude, and his intrusions, with a bit of fiddling, would often work fine as stand-alone historical essays. Those who treasure the works of Daniel Defoe, and find the idea of a novel in the manner of that master intriguing, will find a lot of pleasure here.
#151: I have not read that one by Fowles, so I will have to look for it. Thanks for the recommendation.
The Land of Laughs is the third or fourth Jonathan Carroll novel I've read. I'm always seduced by the off-center observations of his quirky narrators, by the offbeat folks his narrators tend to encounter, and by the (usually) European settings. Often, however, when the novel, in the last third or so, slips into magical-realist-land I find myself losing interest. That wasn't the case with this, Carroll's first novel and the best of the ones I've read. Although he does slip into magical-realist-land at the end I found the shift less jarring (and less boring) than I have in his past novels. Indeed I was ripping through the final pages, and was surprised at the way things turned out though, in retrospect, I should have seen it coming.
#153: I have that one somewhere around my house. I need to dig it out and give it a read.
Matthew Strecher's Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is a useful introduction to and explication of a novel confounding enough that a little introduction and explication is not superfluous. Strecher understands that in a novel such as this one there can be no one definitive reading and his modesty in this regard makes his book that much stronger.
Sunset Song (1932) is the first novel in A Scots Quair, a trilogy of novels by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Because it is a trilogy, and because it deals with the decline of the European peasant (Scottish in this case) as modernity, for better and worse, intrudes, it brings to mind Into Their Labors, John Berger's masterful trilogy about French peasants. A Scots Quair is also similar to Berger's series in that, while both writers are absolutely clear-eyed about the depredations that came with modernity, they are not at all sentimental about peasant life, which for all its harsh beauty and integrity also has its share of viciousness, small-mindedness, and squalor. Gibbon's style is nothing like Berger's, but there is a similarity here, too, in that neither is wedded to the plain style that too many authors seem to feel is a necessary adjunct of any socially conscious or political writing. Gibbon's style is compared to Joyce's, but it seems to me to have more in common with Dylan Thomas's, and at times Faulkner's. In its mix of Scots and English, however, and the humor with which it is leavened, Gibbon has created an idiom entirely his own. The main character, Chris, is a woman, and I hope that Gibbon's acute presentation of her internal life will put paid to the silly notion that it is unusual or impossible for men to write well about women. Chris, in Sunset Song, is a crofter's daughter, a crofter's wife, and then a crofter herself. In the next volume, Cloud Howe, into which I couldn't wait to launch myself, she has married a progressive minister and moved to a town. This relocation will, I assume, give Gibbon a chance to write about the early laboring classes in the hungry years after the war.
I was utterly absorbed in Lewis Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair, and would still be spending my reading time on that, but—long story short—the book ended up in the washing machine and went through a full cycle. Waiting for it to dry out I picked up Marcel Theroux's The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes. It's an extremely well done account of several sets of brothers (Mycroft and Sherlock among them) and the envy, tension, love, and hate that define their relationships. Hovering in the background of these fictional brothers is Marcel's famous father, Paul, and his brother, Alexander Theroux, siblings between whom, famously, there is no love lost, and also Marcel and his brother Louis, a well-known television presenter in England with whom, apparently, he gets along well in spite of their competitiveness with each other. The novel is extremely well organized: Theroux manages to keep all the balls—all the brothers—in the air, and keeps us guessing about the dark secret that seems to have blighted the life of the man the narrator believes to be his uncle.
OMG! My favorite book (o.k - one of my favorites) - A Scot's Quair in the washing machine?!! How did you manage that? I've been telling myself that it is o.k. to begin reading it again next year even though I just finished part three this year.
Long story short: it was on a couch that is covered with a cloth, and got bundled up with that cloth when the cloth was being transported to the washing machine.
The good news is: it's still readable, so I will be able to finish it. What remarkable novels—and before this year I had never heard of them!
I came to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha through her remarkable, and absolutely sui generis, book, Dictée. Cha was not only a writer, but also an artist. The Dream of the Audience is an exhibition catalog with three intermittently interesting and useful essays about Cha. It is, however, mostly to be treasured for its second half where, albeit reduced, and in the case of film and video, stilled, we can get a taste of Cha's artistic output, and that taste will serve as a good introduction to the just released Exilée and Temps Morts: Selected Works (and also to another reread of Dictée.)
Dictée, that entirely original mix of memoir, feminism, avant-garde practice, mythology, and many other wonderful things was surely the pinnacle of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's career as a writer (she was also a formidable artist). That it was published just days after she was murdered at the age of 31 adds unwelcome emphasis to that conviction. The work collected in Exilée Temps Morts does seem preparatory, but this does not mean it is without interest, or only for completists. Many of the works gathered here are texts ripped from their video or performance context, and that this sundering leaves us not with broken fragments, but with, in many cases, accomplished poems, makes clear how central language was to Cha's work, and reminds us how rewarding that work still is.
#161 - I can see how that would happen. I once accidentally mailed my own car registration which was laying on the car passenger seat because I'd thrown the office mail on top of it. Fortunately the Registry mailed it back to me.
The second volumes of trilogies, famously, sag. Cloud Howe doesn't. It is just as riveting, and as unsentimental as the first volume in A Scots Quair, Sunset Song. In Cloud Howe we see the hungry 30s in small town Scotland, and Gibbon brings the town he writes about alive in prose that is never less than adventurous. He also makes us care about his characters, Chris, and increasingly her son Ewan. Book one deals with the end of Scottish peasantry, the crofters, book two with the failure of socialism and other efforts to ameliorate the conditions of the poor, and also the failure of the spiritual in the form of Christianity. One supposes that Ewan, a man of science in training, will be at the center of Grey Granite, book three of the trilogy, and that through him we will see whether, in Gibbon's view, science is an adequate response to the times.
I am hoping to acquire a copy of A Scots Quair very soon. I have had it on Planet TBR for a long time!
At a time when gloom is considered to be the only authentic emotion, David Magee convinces one, in his Infinite Riches: Adventures of a Rare Book Dealer, that , as shocking as this may sound, he enjoyed his life. Maybe the reason he did is that he was never rich or famous, and seems never to have been morosely obsessed with his health, his parents, intoxicants (though he seems to have enjoyed—that word again!—a drink), or his soul. His unselfconscious, but always fluent, prose is the perfect vehicle for the story he tells of the pleasant and engaging life that he lived.
#167: That one sounds good! I am going to have to stop visiting this thread!!
One suspects that Dambisa Moyo is correct when she argues, in Dead Aid, that the massive sums of foreign aid Africa has received in the last sixty years have done little or nothing to ameliorate the conditions in which Africans live, and that in fact the West's charity has increased the immiseration of the continent. One is sorry, therefore, that her argument is robbed of some of the power it might have possessed by the sloppiness with which she presents it. For example: she provides references for the facts she cites only sporadically and according to no apparent system (and when she does make it clear where her information comes from, too often for comfort the source is Wikipedia); assertions which she presents as likely or probable in one chapter are suddenly promoted to certainties in the next; statistics are sometimes presented in ways that seem designed to mislead readers in favor of Moyo's thesis rather than to illuminate the situation, and the book is clumsily written throughout. This ham-handedness is a shame because, despite the shoddiness of her presentation the evidence does seem overwhelming: it's time to try something different in Africa.
#170: I just learned of the book Dead Aid through a magazine I was reading this past week, so I had put it on Planet TBR. It is unfortunate that the book is not a better read.
I think she is probably right, too, which is one of the reasons I want to read the book. It remains on the Planet.
Go Osaka's The Red Star of Cadiz is one of those books that's good enough to keep one reading . . . barely. I thoroughly enjoyed, for example, the information woven through the thriller about flamenco, especially flamenco as it manifested itself in a network of clubs and bars in mid-1970s Tokyo. That section of the narrative buzzed right along. Things that almost led to me putting the novel aside, on the other hand, are the sloppy English of the translator (when Raymond Chandler is the author's inspiration, the prose better sparkle), and Osaka's incessant piling of one plot convolution upon another until one is mentally pleading with him: for the love of god, put this thing out of its misery! Please!
I did keep reading, but in the end (flamenco trivia aside), as a book that evidently satisfied Japanese readers, the novel is most interesting for the light it sheds on Japanese culture, though one doubts it would satisfy readers from cultures that like their thrillers taut and tight.
Red Snow, by Susumu Katsumata, is a collection of subtle manga in which, with great sympathy and perception, but without rose-colored glasses, the author evokes his Tohoku childhood. Though simply drawn, the comics are never actually simple: each tale blossoms when reread, and even the most fantastic of the stories are grounded in the reality of the hard lives of the poor in Japan's snowy far-North.
#175: Your description of Red Snow intrigues me. I will be on the look out for it. Thanks!
Aquiline by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is as challenging as one expects a book at the avant-garde end of the poetry spectrum to be. Her poems demand rereading, and reward it; her play with line breaks and enjambent can't help but make one smile; the tragedy that struggles through the pared down language threatens to send the smile away.
Why bother with poetry at all? Works such as Aquiline suggest an answer.
Alan Moorehead's The White Nile is a perfect mix of high adventure, history, and fantastic prose. (He's been called one of the great prose stylists of our time, and he just might be.) How could one not enjoy a story that takes us along with adventurers who walked--walked!--from Zanzibar to Lake Victoria (granted, Africans walked it with them, and they did so while carrying all the heavy stuff, but still . . . ) through wild territory that was then uncharted? How could one not delight in finding out more about ambitious eccentrics such as Emin Pasha and Richard Francis Burton? Moorehead has gone to the diaries, journals, and letters of such men in creating his narrative, and though the book is probably dated now, and is limited, particularly because at the time little was known about the African cultures the Europeans decimated, it is still well worth reading. (Moorehead deals with those cultures, it should be noted, with a sensitivity remarkable for his time.)
An uneven, but mostly stimulating collection of essays by Sufi heretic Peter Lamborn Wilson (aka Hakim Bey), Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam is well worth reading at a time when it is all too easy to forget that Islam is more complex that the media—right, left, and center—ever let on. Wilson's take on Islam is, of course, unorthodox, not to say heretical, but that he, a practicing Moslem, is capable of formulating such views, demonstrates that Islam is a bigger tent than we have been lead to believe. The best essay in the collection is the one that takes us to the most marginal place, The Moorish Orthodox Church of America, an organization that still exists, and is based on an imaginative, even fanciful, version of Islam (as is much of Lamborn's thinking); the fancy and imagination are, make no mistake, strengths. In much the same way that the American practioners of Zig Zag Zen revitalized that sclerotic sect, perhaps Lamborn and like-minded thinkers will give Islam a bit of what it needs.
An odd and satisfying amalgam, L. Timmel Duchamp's Alanya to Alanya, book one of the Marq'ssan Cycle, is pulp science fiction made heartier by the feminism that informs it, and by a real and plausible vision (the presence of sympathetic extraterrestrials notwithstanding) of how political change might happen. As in most pulp, the characters seem sometimes made of cardboard, and the prose now and again gets tangled up in its own feet, but, as in most good pulp, none of that matters when you're lost in the adventure. One wishes, however, that some sharp-eyed editor had caught the misspelling in the epigraph; Sloppiness is an entirely inappropriate way to begin a book as well thought out as this one. I look foward to volumes 2-5.
#183: I am trying to broaden my science fiction and fantasy reading horizons. Thanks for bringing the Duchamp series to my attention. I will look for it.
Ernest Hilbert, in Sixty Sonnets, reminds us how vigorous and fun a form the sonnet is. That the form is still fecund becomes abundantly clear when one sits down with this collection and reads four, seven, nine sonnets at a sitting. Reading one, a reader is apt to say, "Yup, that sure is a sonnet," but reading several one inevitably compares each sonnet with those that precede and follow it, and if the poet is as skillful as Hilbert one delights in how much can be done,and in how many different ways, within the formal straitjacket. These sixty leave one hungry for sixty more.
Oranges & Peanuts for Sale by Eliot Weinberger
Eliot Weinberger is on record as saying that Guy Davenport and Susan Howe are the only Americans doing interesting things in that much derided form, the essay. Davenport is no longer with us, alas, and I've never read Susan Howe, (alas—she's on my list). Therefore I'm forced to conclude that, of the living American essayists I've read, Eliot Weinberger stands head and shoulders above all of them. Whether he 's reminding us that George Oppen is essential, alerting us for the first time to a critic named Kenneth Cox, ripping Robert Alter's translation of the Psalms to pieces, or teaching us about oranges and peanuts, his essays, in prose that is various and exciting, are a treat. Read now.
Yellow dust blowing down from the North, migrants from the country scrambling for a living, young urbanites scrambling for cars and condos, memories of famine and the Cultural Revolution, an authoritarian government watching over it all: Jonathan Tel gives us, in The Beijing of Possibilities, the grit of Beijing today. What sets him apart from other chroniclers of that capital is that he never forgets—from the appearance of a gorilla bicycling furiously through Beijing's streets in the first story, to the simian's reappearance, singing, in the last—the grin. Not recommended for those who feel that serious topics should only be approached with earnestness and gloom.
I read several books on China last year, so I will look for the Tel book as well. Thanks for the recommendation!
Veronica Forrest-Thomson, in Poetic Artifice, has actually convinced me of the importance of "message" in poetry, though of course it is her extraordinarily intelligent understanding of how message should be used as only one element in understanding a poem, and how our understanding of a poem's message should, if the poem is any good, lead us back to the poem's language and form, that has enabled her to do so.
The piss and vinegar with which this book of poetic theory is written was a pleasant surprise. On Ted Hughes: "If we are talking of nihilism, Ball, Picabia, Duchamp, Tzara, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Aragon, Breton—to mention only a few and obvious examples—make Mr. Hughes' 'nihilism' look somewhat adolescent (if we had any confidence that adolescence would ever be outgrown)." Ouch!
I am currently reading Infinite Riches, which you recommended earlier this year, and enjoying it immensely. Thanks for the recommendation of this one!
Regarding Infinite Riches, isn't it nice, for a change, to read a memoir of someone who lived a pleasant life and seems to have relished every minute of it?
Yes! I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have put it on my 'Need to Buy' list. I loved his stories about Marks & Co. since I am a huge fan of 84, Charing Cross Road.
A compadre of mine got it just right: the most fruitful way to understand Frederick Seidel's poetry is "by seeing him as some kind of wealthy Roman patrician, commenting on the declining empire." The difference is that few Roman patricians (and probably, now that James Merrill is gone, no contemporary patricians other than Seidel) were as skillful with a pen, as witty, and as irreverent as the author of Ooga-Booga. Another way to understand Seidel might be to imagine what would have happened if Simon Raven actually were a patrician, and rich, and wrote poetry. Ooga-Booga is a book to remind us how fun—and unsettling—poetry can be.
The first thing I should say is that I've never been an A.S. Byatt fan. I'll even go so far as to confess that I didn't love Possession. I picked up The Children's Book largely because the milieu—late Victorian-early Edwardian Bohemianism—fascinates me, and Byatt does the era justice. She has been criticized for trying to include just everything in this long book, but I think the bagginess of her novel is one of its strengths (the information dumps never sever the narrative threads), as, indeed, inclusiveness is one of the strengths of the novel form. Anyone interested in good fiction and: suffragettes, Edward Carpenter, creativity, children's stories, World War I, puppets, feminism, pottery, apostles, art, pastoral, etc. will enjoy The Children's Book.
Even those of us fortunate enough to live in Japan, if we are more or less illiterate in the language, often miss the most exciting trends in the arts, particularly, literary art. That's why one is so grateful to the Dalkey Archive Press for bringing us Mieko Kanai's The Word Book. It's not surprising to find that there are Japanese writers working in less commercial veins than the Murakamis, Banana, and the few other Japanese who make it into English, but it is a delight to actually be able to read one of those authors, Mieko Kanai. She is an avant-gardist, very much school of Kafka. The stories collected here drift back and forth from dream to . . . let's just say not dream; characters shift from their childhood selves to their grown selves (which still contain those childhood selves); the mundane brushes up against the fantastic, and it's all bound together by memory, red, water, and sleep. Thank you, Dalkey, and thank you Mieko Kanai.
With Royal Flash, George MacDonald Fraser brings us more of the journals of Harry Flashman, consummate coward and cad, and we delight, once again, in watching him sink to new lows. In so much historical fiction the life is squeezed out of it by the fustian with which it is festooned. In the Flashman books there's a giggle on every page.
In the Garden of Iden is a fun sci-fi adventure / English country house novel about people from the distant future visiting the distant past (16th century England). Kage Baker knows her history, is witty, and is not afraid to ridicule aspects of the distant past (superstition) that most writers still hesitate to ridicule today.
#199: I read that one back in April and enjoyed it. I have bought the second book in the series, but not managed to read it yet. One of these centuries . . .
It's not entirely clear what (other than a commission to write a series of newspaper columns about his life) inspired Donald Keene, in Chronicles of my Life: An American in the Heart of Japan, to go over the ground he had already covered in his earlier memoir, On Familiar Terms. Still, Chronicles of my Life is a pleasant and entertaining account of what appears to have been a singularly pleasant life. Keene makes vivid how much happiness can be found in scholarship, in a life devoted to learning and teaching. Less revealing (and less ribald) than Donald Richie's diaries, Keene's chronicles are a worthy account of the life of one of the three men (along with Richie and Edward Seidensticker) who defined Japan for generations of English readers.
Because Hakim Bey, aka Peter Lamborn Wilson, has been involved in such a range of (counter-)cultural activities, one hardly expects him, on top of everything else, to be a good poet. Black Fez Manifesto, however, is filled with fun: language arrayed artfully with attention to the play of sound, a vocabulary that doesn't limit itself to 8th grade level, a world view that is often congenial and always refreshing, and humor, humor, humor. Why isn't he better known, at least among that sliver of the poetry world that has embraced other rebel bards such as the Beats?
And that's that for my reading in 2009. Thanks, everyone (both of you) who've taken the time to read my reviews. See you in 2010.
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