Archive for February, 2012

bookish paraphernalia

  • The Best Translated Book Awards longlist has been announced! As usual, I haven’t read any of them, but a couple have been on The List, and most of the rest are being added promptly. French is heavily represented, which I’ll have to look into–I’m not wild about contemporary fiction from France, but have enjoyed what I’ve read from other various French-speaking countries. V. excited to see two new-to-me Polish writers on the list–I’ve been wanting to explore Polish literature beyond its poetry.
  • New things:  the new Zadie Smith has a cover and I like it, maybe; it looks to me like there might be some cut-out layering going on here which is aesthetically pleasing but difficult to shelve at work without horrible tearing. I don’t always love or even like Smith’s fiction but am convinced that she and I could be BFFs and so I will certainly read this. I hope it’s genre–I seem to recall a statement from her saying she was going to explore genre, but I can’t find it now so maybe I’m just being wishful. New Junot Diaz–I was excited until I saw it was short stories, sigh. (Beleaguered Internet, you will quickly become impatient with my denigration of the short story.) AND, best of all, the sequel to Wolf Hall is coming so soon! It has a cover! A cover that I strongly dislike–it doesn’t go with Wolf Hall‘s design at all, and the purple + yellow combination is distracting and silly and not in the least foreboding as it should be–but still.
  • An “expose” on what it’s like to work at one of amazon’s shipping centers, via amazon watchdogs extraordinaire, mobylives. Apparently they’re evil and it sucks…? Though I can’t imagine anyone naive enough to think that picking items for online shipping would be a cushy, low-stress job with minimal physical wear and tear, so the import of this is quite debatable.
  • This is a few days late and I have no idea how long it will last, but NYRB Classics is doing a winter sale–50% off select titles. This is extremely fortuitous for me:  I was just coveting The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns after reading the beguiling Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead a few weeks ago and lo! what should be included in the sale but this same book!? Clearly this is fate.

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The Last Brother by Natacha Appanah

This was one of the titles from the Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen that I was most excited to read, an anticipation that was somewhat disappointed as this one made no huge impression on me. I liked it, I was happy to have read it once I had finished. Contrary to what most reader reviews suggest–I am thinking mostly of goodreads, where most readers note dutifully the importance of being educated on a forgotten corner of World War 2 history–this is not a Holocaust novel; this is a novel about grief; about a small boy who has lost all of his brothers and who, through a series of tragedies, loses the stand-in brother, a friend who happens to be a Jewish refugee imprisoned in bureaucratic stasis on the island of Mauritius. It is indeed set in a forgotten pocket of the Holocaust narrative, but Appanah, I believe, makes a very conscious decision throughout most of the book to distance it from the genre. (I say most because the ending, the last few pages, disrupt this impression by making the historical context quite explicit. I hated the ending.) And thank goodness that she does. Holocaust in literature is a quandary best avoided except by minds of the highest order, writers of the finest talent and most unimpeachable integrity.* Appanah sidesteps the problem by employing the well-used trope of “adult narrator looking back on and retelling childhood events,” a narrative frame that is common enough to raise skepticism in this reader, but which may well have saved the book for me. It provided the very necessary perspective of memory and adulthood that saved it from falling into that most sentimentally precarious of genres, that of the Holocaust novel:  through the aged eyes of adult Raj, his childhood friend David is an enigma, a total Other; language barriers and the oblivion of childhood prevented young Raj from ever seeing his friend or knowing his suffering–and grown Raj realizes this and is repeatedly, physically tormented by his failure to ever know this most precious of friends, this surrogate brother. I took Raj’s retrospective realization as to how little he understood David’s situation as signifying the ineffable horror of the Holocaust, how it is impossible for anyone who has not directly experienced it to come close to understanding what it is like; that Appanah wove the acknowledgement of this impossibility into the plot is a mark in its favor. This strategy–an old man wracked by guilt over his failure to understand, and by understanding save, a young Jewish refugee–could have been heavy-handed, but it worked for me.

Rather, it worked until the ending, which–spoiler, I suppose–nearly destroyed the book for me:  the last few pages have a  stilted summary of historical events, unnecessarily shoehorned in, followed by a pat avowal to remember and pass on the story to future generations. This jerked the whole text back into the territory of bad Holocaust novels and the cliches they trade in. I would have preferred an ending more in line with the fraught guilt and sense of lifelong grief that characterizes the rest of the novel–the one it has quite undermines any emotional force that the book had until its close. So long as I can willfully pretend not to have read the last few pages I can appreciate this book.

*I draw a line of distinction between Holocaust fiction and true accounts, of course–everyone should read Primo Levi and Eli Wiesel–but my unease about fiction in this subgenre is due in part to the proliferation of false accounts which do great harm to historical truth, obviously by giving ammunition to deniers, but also simply by blurring the lines between fiction and reality in every mind. I cannot go so far as to agree with Adorno’s famous moratorium against creating art after the Holocaust; I am too much a romantic believer in the necessity of literature to go that far. But it is a difficult area, and books like The Book Thief or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas offend me, and are primarily what I am thinking of when I say how glad I am that The Last Brother is not of their ilk. I won’t continue in this digression–it’s awfully complicated to express well–but I refer anyone interested to the always-eloquent  Cynthia Ozick:  her essays “Who Owns Anne Frank?” and “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” both found in the collection Quarrel & Quandary, have informed my thoughts on this matter; I don’t fully agree with her–she takes an extreme stance–but the bones of the argument have always struck me as sound and I look upon the subgenre with eyes tinted by suspicion.

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I’ve written elsewhere,  once or twice, rather pompously I’m afraid, about the much-anticipated Tournament of Books already. For the uninitiated, the Tournament is the most fun on the Internet in March for bookish types; it is at once silly–because prizes for art are inherently ridiculous, based as they are on the vagaries of particular aesthetic taste–and profound–because it is, always, utterly aware of its own absurdity. For several years running I have done my best to read everything and, while I regret this OCD completionist attitude at certain reads, it’s always brought me more good than bad. It was easier this year than in last–I’d already read quite a few of them prior to the announcement. My first impression of the list was one of dissatisfaction:  last year was not a strong year for me in newly published contemporary fiction. I’m still working on formulating my revised and updated opinions on the books I read since the brackets made their glorious debut; until then, here are some brief, impressionistic thoughts on the ones I read prior to the announcement, in 2011. All have long since been returned to the library or otherwise rehomed (space restrictions, the fact that I already own more books than any person my age has a right to, prevents me from keeping most books after I’ve read them) so I am unable to do proper reviews, with substantiating evidence and quotes and page references, on any of the books, but these, the long-ago read will suffer most. Alas, nevertheless:

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes

I liked this, as I knew I would:  memory claims that I’ve liked every Barnes I’ve ever read. It was fretful and extremely British; deceptively slight, but troublesome enough to continue in the mind long after the mere few hours it took to read had passed. I love this book for what it did to me more for its narrator (anonymous, forgettable, I do not even recall what his name was supposed to be) or the menial details of its plot:  it made me stop entirely in my head to think about agency and memory, action and inaction, the roles we play in our lives concretely and how they differ from the roles we think we play. “I wonder when our literature will stop being so obsessed with the fallibility of memory as its central theme,” a coworker said sarcastically when I tried to recommend it to her. She is right, in a way; it’s hardly a new idea. But it’s not exactly the point–the point is more about responsibility than anything else. A deeply moral book without ever moralizing, utterly profound, deserving of its Booker win regardless of what anyone says. In addition to its resonant theme I adored the way this was told–how actually, physically slight it was, how deceptively inconsequential and meandering and plotless/pointless everything seems until, suddenly, it’s over and you realize that something very large has just taken place without your notice. It’s incredibly subtle and masterful–I intend to buy it when it hits paperback and reread it to try and determine how it works, how Barnes managed it. This is easily one of my favourites of the batch and, though I’ve seen some mixed reactions to it, I do like its chances.

Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt! Her first published book, The Last Samurai, made a great impression on me when I read it years ago that I’ve been eager to read more by her ever since, and this didn’t disappoint. Much. It’s a very, very different book from Samurai, and in comparison to that one it is slight–and not in a good way. Still, it isn’t fair to judge a book on the basis of its predecessor, and I did like this one quite a bit:  it was funny (a rarity for me–I am terminally serious and rarely amused) and biting and awfully smart. I actually read it–kind of, halfway–again in January to make sure it really was as satirical and clever as I thought it was. And it was, though perhaps a bit too reductive about gender differences to be truly great. ToB predictions:  probably not good–anyone who doesn’t get its particular brand of humor instantly might be offended or, at the very least, put off by the distant narrational tone.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick de Witt

All I can really remember about this was how distracting I found the spectre of its potential movie while reading it. I enjoyed it, I think, but suspect I read it in one of my famous Sunday afternoon tears, that is, too quickly to think much about it. (This is my habit with genre.) Everyone everywhere seems to invoke the Coen brothers in reference while describing it and this is apt:  it reads just like one of their films. This is, more or less, a good thing, but it’s no True Grit (which I must have read about the same time or a little before) in my memory. It may do well in the tournament–I’m confident, at least, that it will make it to the second round.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

This is my favourite to win–not because I adored it unreservedly, but because I think it fulfills a number of broadspectrum factors of appeal. I loved this while I was reading it–I could relate so much to it:  I love Barthes! and I’m interested in the varieties of religious experience! I know just what it feels like to fall in love destructively just after graduating from college with a useless degree in literary theory!–so much of it resonated, and, I suspect, will do so for others. For the day that I was reading it and about a week after I thought very highly of this book. I still do, but my swooning enthusiasm has died down markedly as the months have passed and I am more and more bothered by its defects. Which, as they are spoilery, I will not delve into in this post, but may return to if it does well in the ToB.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht

This book had moments of excruciatingly beautiful writing but it never came close to fitting all of its disparate pieces together in a satisfying manner. I would like it a lot more if not for its pre-pub hype & the fact that no one–customers, mainly–who I’ve spoken to personally save for my good friend L. even remotely agrees with me that this book was just barely okay and certainly not great. Sometimes having a dissenting opinion makes me really aggressively contrary. If this advances at all in the tournament I will probably spend a lot of time complaining about it to my boyfriend–because he’ll at least nod along and appear to be listening–and perhaps to the silent caverns of the internet.

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

I have all the respect in the world for Ann Patchett as a human being. We–my coworkers and I–are all vocal, laudatory fans of her decision to enter bookselling. We scour our daily bookselling mailing lists for quotes she gives on bookselling, handselling, and indie bookstores in the age of amazon, and email them to each other, often simultaneously, always expressing the desire to meet her and thank her. Honestly, I’m kind of forgetting that she’s a writer.

I loved Bel Canto back in the day but haven’t read it since I was a young teenager. After this one, I probably never will reread it; she’s awfully bookclubby. This is fine–bookclubby books are often perfectly good and fill an important social role–but it’s simply not to my current taste. I still cannot decide how it will fare in the Tournament; Kingsolver, similarly bookclubby, did after all do very well with the (weak, I thought) Lacuna.

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

I complained initially about the inclusion of both Obreht and Russell and I stand by that complaint:  I would have much rather had just one of the 20-under-40ers and given the spot to a more interesting, less well-known pick. Even though I like Obreht’s chances better in the contest itself, I would probably have chosen Russell over Obreht for the tournament, myself, because I personally found her effort to be slightly more charming and enjoyable. My notes suggest that my reason for disliking both books was the same:  both are so poorly structured that they fail as cohesive novels. I think I’m in the minority, but I am slightly more likely to pick up Russell’s next book than I am Obreht’s; I guess I just like alligators more than tigers. It won’t happen, but I’d love to see those two up against each other.

1Q84, Murakami

I had read half of this prior to the bracket release. I put it down in utter disgust, planning to never come back. Dubious readers, this is something I almost never do. If I have already read more than half of a book I am almost always going to finish it. I was bitterly disappointed by Murakami but my loyalty to the Tournament forced me to rally my strength, conduct a rescue expedition into the wilds of Under Bed, and sacrifice an entire Sunday to finishing. Spoiler:  it did not get any better. Scott Esposito expresses most of my complaints very nicely and with a lot less vitriol but even so I might write up something just about the Murakami–I can’t talk about it without discussing explicitly the end.

As Mr. McGinty could attest, if he pleased, I’ve devoted an unhealthy amount of the past month worrying that 1Q84 might sweep the Tournament, destroying my faith in my own taste. There are an awful lot of people on the internet who love this book; I do not understand and no one can or will explain it to me satisfactorily. I fear I am in the minority regarding Murakami’s behemoth; I fear it will do very, very well.

I have at my right elbow my copy of Javier Marias’ A Heart So White, a book that is much better, so far, than most of these. The library is nipping at my heels for its swift return so I shall, dear Internet, leave you for the pleasure of its company.

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thought experiment #1

Let us conceive of a girl who loves books. She spends her days in a bookstore and her nights in a library that coincidentally contains the trappings of an apartment. For years now she has hung on to the ephemeral desire to write about books in a space more public than her small notebook. She has inched towards the activity, flirted at its edges. One night she decides to reserve a corner of the internet devoted solely to her closeness and distance from other people’s words. She does this. This is it.

Let us see how long it takes to become. If it ever does. You may start the clock.

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