Archive for March, 2012

Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov (Melville House’s International Crime series)

Death; or, The Story:  Viktor Zolotaryov is a failed writer approaching destitution when destiny drops in his lap a dream job:  penning obituraries, or obelisks, of still-living artists, dignitaries, politicians–anyone and everyone of distinction in Kiev. As any discerning reader will immediately guess, this is a dodgy task with dire implications:  the obelisks portend certain doom for their subjects. Viktor is slightly dumb and deeply passive; he spends most of the book in denial about the results of his work, and when he is forced to confront its grisly consequences, he is disinclined to act. A doormat, he is wont to agree with any demand asked of him. This leads to diverse plottish hijinks, some predictable and some absurd. It’s possible that this is a funny book? I could never decide. If it is funny, it is a dark humor, deadpan and understated despite the oddity of its premise. I can see the possibility of a successful film adaptation.

The Penguin; or, Characters:  Kurkov has not produced a mystery in the traditional plot-driven sense; really, the book succeeds more as an existential character study. At the outset, Viktor’s life is devoid of human contact, and though he acquires enemies, acquaintances, and dependents, he remains fundamentally disconnected from them all. I am not denouncing him as a sociopath and don’t think that Kurkov is either–most likely this delineates a sort of post-Soviet ennui and social breakdown. For Viktor is not incapable of developing emotional bonds. It just so happens that his deepest relationship is not with another human but with Misha, the penguin he adopted from a zoo too destitute to feed its denizens. Misha is ineffable; unlike a dog or a cat, whose desires and personalities are easily enough discerned, he is a tuxedo’d depository for various human interpretation. For Viktor, Misha is the ideal life companion, more perfectly suited to his lifestyle than any human could ever be: Misha is dolorous but noble, loyal but discreet with his affection, dependent upon Viktor for food and care but always distinctly himself, as apt to shuffle away to stand in corners as he is to lay his head on his master’s lap. But this is only Viktor’s perception; for others, the interpretation of Misha is different. A dying penguinologist diagnoses Misha as depressive, doomed to pine fruitlessly for the arctic vistas of the south pole until an early death. A child, deserted by her father into Viktor’s care, views Misha as her only playmate and friend. And Viktor’s disreputable business acquaintances see Misha as a perfect emblem for their activities, a distortion of Viktor’s gentle pet that leads to disastrous events. I have no direct quotes to add to this write-up because, in a flash of inspiration, I lent it to one of my favourites of the bookish curmudgeons with whom I particularly bond, an older woman who is constantly deriding the unbearable seriousness of my reading choices. I’m looking forward to discovering whether Death and the Penguin is a good fit for her; I have a hunch it will be.

Dogma, Lars Iyer

Surely you’ve heard of Lars Iyer and his projected trilogy from Melville House, of which Dogma is the second (though it could easily be read out of order as the first; a chronological progression of events, these books are not)? No? Well then. Iyer chronicles the dubious friendship between an unlikely duo of dissolute philosophers:  the narrator, Lars, whose few objectively determinable characteristics include his lineage (Dutch and Indian), his religion (Hinduism) and his dogged passivity; and W., his best friend and foremost detractor. Both Spurious and Dogma take the form of a mostly one-sided dialogue consisting largely of W.’s diatribe against his friend’s deficiencies–when he’s being kind, he refers to Lars as “Diogenes gone mad”; when he is not, everything about Lars is open to disection, from his physique to his intelligence to his lifestyle. These heaps of abuse are interspersed with philosophy and underpinned by a presentiment of apocalyptic doom. As with the first book, dire portents lurk at the edges:  the creeping damp of Spurious has been joined by a plague of rats that colonize Lars’ domicile. Is this yet another dimension of the demerits cataloged by W., proof of Lars’ disgusting slovenliness, or is it a harbinger of the world’s end?

What’s the deal with this relationship, anyway? Is Lars as despicable as W. makes him out to be? If so, why does W. deign to be friends with him? (A question posed constantly by W. himself.) If not, why does Lars endure the abuse? And what about the distinct structure, the one-sided dialogue, with Lars doggedly reporting every last diatribe of W.’s, only occasionally recording his own responses, only sometimes giving context? I doubt that these questions matter in the least, though there was a glimmer of a key provided at the end of this book, but they are a consideration portion of the book’s draw.

Some reviewers have deprecated Dogma for being insufficiently different from Spurious; for the record, I disagree. The first book was largely concerned with the pair’s obsession with immortality and their power struggle over which of them is Kafka and which is Brod (an argument haunted by the dread that both may be Brods); Dogma sees them in action, striving to achieve the longed-for assurance of a legacy. At its start we find the duo on a lecture tour of America; its intent is to disseminate their enlightened philosophy to the wilds of America, but it quickly devolves into drinking, bickering, and drawing cartoons of America, represented by Tom Sawyer and Moby Dick cavorting in the Mississippi. The transatlantic adventure is discontinued soon enough, but back in England our heroes embark on another project:  the invention of Dogma, half discourse style, half religion. Chapters are devoted to the defining of Dogma. Dogma is, among other things, spartan, full of pathos, sincere, collaborative, and world-historical. It is, to say the least, very few things that W. and Lars appear to be in their day-to-day dialogue with one another. They wrangle through the dictums of their intellectual movement, stating and rescinding them; W. despairs and emits diatribes against Lars; and all the while the damp and the rats continue their ominous take-over of Lars’ flat…

The end comes as a disappointment. I would happily have continued on in the company of W. and Lars, and I am most desirous to read the last book. Will my questions be given closure? I do not know, and I do not particularly care; these books are delightful in their solipsism regardless of how the trilogy closes.

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis

It is a great temptation to diagnose the various characters in The Dog of the South, my second read from Charles Portis. They are outlandish, Characters-with-a-capital-C, and though they are never dull their outlandish distinction was a deterrent against emotional attachment. It is difficult for me to discuss this book without the dominating context of True Grit, a novel that I love very much. I dislike comparative reviews, so I will say simply this before moving on:  Ray Midge is no Mattie Ross; Dog did not depose True Grit from its place in my heart. Where Mattie and her disciples are wholly real to me, Ray and the people he meets are too pointedly odd to bridge the distance created by determined quirk. This is a minor quibble–I was happy with every minute I spent with Dog and will not disagree with anyone who calls Portis a writer of neglected American classics.

Like Mattie, Ray is on a quest; unlike that most dauntless girl, his has considerably lower stakes:  he is driving through Mexico, following a trail of credit card receipts, in search of his car, which has been stolen by his runaway wife, Norma, and her aspiring-revolutionary of a first husband, Dupree. It is the vehicle that is Ray’s dominant concern; to the return of his wife he is strikingly diffident. Her desertion is warranted, one suspects, and in a striking moment of awareness, Ray expresses awareness of his shortcomings and sympathy to her dissatisfaction:  “I should have paid more attention to Norma. I should have talked to her and listened to her but I didn’t do it. A timely word here and there might have worked wonders. I knew she was restless, and anxious to play a more active part in life. She spoke in just those terms, and there were other signals as well” (5). Despite some regret, it is the car Ray desires, for the replacement they have left him is a disheartening wreck in comparison to his beloved Ford Torino:

It was a compact car, a rusty little piece of basic transportation with a V-6 engine. The thing ran well enough and it seemed eager to please but I couldn’t believe the Buick engineers ever had their hearts in a people’s car. Dupree had shamefully neglected it. There was about a quarter-turn of slack in the steering wheel and I had to swing it wildly back and forth in a childlike burlesque of motoring. After a day or two I got the hang of it but the violent arm movements made me look like a lunatic. I had to stay alert every second, every instant, to make small corrections. That car had 74,000 miles on it and the speedometer was broken. There was a hole in the floor on the driver’s side and when I drove over something white the flash between my feet made me jump. That’s enough on the car for now.

No noble steed, that one! Despite its decrepitude, Ray develops a fondness for the machine; it is soon clear that he is more capable of forming attachment to objects than to people. He’s too self-centered for relationships; everyone, from his absconded wife to the friend he makes on the road–Reo Symes, a disbarred doctor determined to enact a devious fraud against his missionary mother in order to attain his fortune–is incidental to his own consciousness. This kind of narrative total immersion is typical of Portis, from my diminutive sample, but the disjuncture between this particular narrator’s view and how things may actually be is especially distinct. Ray is a failure, a dilettante who has never been able to settle on anything, but he views himself as distinguished from the rest of the populace, an unrecognized genius. His delusions of grandeur are often hilarious, as when he compares himself to America’s founding father: “I had enormous respect for General Washington, as who doesn’t, but I also liked the man, believing as I did that we shared many of the same qualities. Perhaps I should say ‘some of the same qualities’ because in many ways we are not at all alike. He, after all, had only read two books on warfare, Bland’s Exercises and Sim’s Military Guide, and I had a read a thousand. And of course he was a big man while I am compact of build” (141).

Ray’s denseness about his own deficiencies find a mirror in Dr. Leo Symes, owner of the brokendown bus called the Dog of the South, who becomes his traveling companion. Symes is a distorted future version of Ray, full of stories of how he has been wronged, obsessed with elaborate schemes to attain the potential he never manifested. Also, Symes is obsessed with one John Selmer Dix, the author of self-help books for salesmen, and is convinced that Dix’s texts hold the keys to understanding, well, everything. I mention this because it highlights one of several shared trait between the two drifters:  both are convinced that everything can be distilled to an essential right and wrong way of doing things. They are underdogs, dreamers incapable of joining reality long enough to demand results from their goals. Everyone loves an underdog, but these two are so very delusional that it’s uncomfortable to observe their mishaps. It is possible that they are modern versions of Don Quixote, but unlike in the tale of that venerable forebearer, there’s never a sense of a defined reality from which the characters are departing. Everything and everyone is deranged, events are disjointed from a traditional sense of cause and effect. The picaresque chaos of it all is made even more distinct by its characters belief that, beneath the seeming meaninglessness, there is a correct way to live. It’s a book that’s supposed to be funny, I know, and, as I hope my meager quoting displays, it was marvelously deadpan, but I found its overall effect to be disquieting and nihilistic. It could just be me.

In fact, supposedly funny books often have the side effect of making me very sad. I have fiddled with days on this post trying to say something about the why of this with no coherent result, so I shall give it up for now. Of these three, only Dogma didn’t depress me–probably because so much anxiety and absurd intellectual distress is built into the book itself.


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I have been working halfheartedly on a probably-obnoxious writeup about some of the books I’ve finished this month but I keep getting distracted, my attention torn between the ToB threads and my monomaniacal desire to be reading all the time. Most of my attention is focused In Europe by Geert Mak, which I think I read about on Bookslut last fall; it’s a travelogue and history of Europe’s 20th century. It’s good, but slow, as history is, and I am worried enough about my prospects of finishing it before the library demands its return that all internet time is infused by a haze of anxiety. So many books to read! Such exquisite pressure! Here we have:

  • Lightning, Jean Echenoz, from Three Percent’s BTBA longlist. Their write up on this novel really intrigued me–Tesla? One of their best of 2011? A favourite to win? I needed no more convincing:  I ordered it immediately from the library.
  • In Red, Magdalena Tulli — Another from the BTBA longlist, the one that piqued my interest the most upon the list’s release. The author is Polish–reading more Polish literature is a goal of mine–and it sounds fantastic:   it’s the story of the 20th century as told through an imaginary Polish town. I like places-as-characters, and this one has comparisons to Calvino, so anticipation runs high. I read the first ten pages of this the day I bought it and it has a gorgeous opening. I hope my  expectations are not disappointed.
  • The Magic Toyshop, Angela Carter — I run often into references to Carter but  had never read her. Steps to remedy this deficiency–because I hate being unfamiliar with frequently referenced authors–were taken last month and, with terrible timing, the orders came in a glut with all of my others in the library’s nefarious conspiracy to make my life difficult. I read through her short stories in the past few weeks and, while they were still short stories and thus less appealing, her style is lovely even if her subject matter is macabre. The first few pages are rife with utterly delightful character descriptions. Curious to see if Carter’s talents are only in short form or if she has what it takes to sustain even a relatively slim novel.
  • Penguin Lost, Andrey Kurkov — the sequel to Death and the Penguin, which I liked. When I saw this at the library I could not resist despite being far over my personal check out limit.
  • Tarkovsky’s Stalker & Zona by Geoff Dyer — Obviously that’s a movie, not a book, but the two are inseparable as a project as the book is a dissection of the film. I don’t know when I’ll get to these–I did just read Dyer’s study of World War I and I dislike reading more than one book by a single author in a short period of time (shot story collections don’t count); it’s too risky, my head is too much a sponge, my entire pattern of words and memory get commandeered by another’s style. However long it takes  me to get to these, my life is more complete having these in my possession. I’ve been anxious to rewatch teh film for about half a year now and feel triumphant to finally have it at my leisurely disposal. I am both eager and nervous; when I first saw it I considered it a favourite and I am worried that it will not live up to my memory.
  • It’s Superman!, Tom De Haven — Loaned to me by my gentleman caller. I’m not a fan of Superman, but he assures me that this is a compelling take. I do hope he is understanding about the fact that I will not get to it anytime soon, particularly when I have pledged to read several others on his recommendation first. This one may languish until the proper mood strikes. Until that happens, it’s got a nice cover to brighten up the surroundings.
  • The books I bought from the NYRB Winter Sale with my accompanying rationals:  Pages from the Goncourt Journals by Edmond & Jules Goncourt (I needed a 4th to even out my purchase and this has an intro by Dyer); The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (eager to read more of her after the absolutely wonderful Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead–this is the book that tempted me to partake of the sale at all despite it breaking my rules of serendipitous acquisition of NYRBs); Chess Story by Stefan Zweig (I’ve been wanting to read more Zweig for ages now and my interest has been piqued in the past few weeks as he has been referenced often in my WWI reading; also, it is red and I am more likely to buy red books than any other colour); and The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya (Russian. Science fictional. Did not hate her short stories. A red book.). Though interspersed throughout, these are all bottom of the pile in terms of priority. There’s no pressure to read them anytime soon now that they are mine; anyway, I do like to hoard up NYRBs for dry spells in reading–they are almost always pretty great, and it’s a comfort to possess that guarantee.

Additionally, there is this lovely gem:

Shakespeare’s Heroines:  Characteristics of Women:  Moral, Poetical, and Historical by Mrs. Anna Jameson. This was a gift from one of my bosses after I dashed to an estate sale with an emergency infusion of boxes and then stayed to help pack up the goods. I have a small collection of mostly valueless (but very pretty!) old books; one of my great amusements in life is arranging and rearranging them in attractive displays. I don’t usually read them, but I might this one:  it’s literary criticism, first published in 1832 (though my copy is possibly a 1901 edition), and I’m curious from a historical-gender perspective to see what this female critic, hitherto unknown to me, has to say about Shakespeare’s women.

Not pictured:  the aforementioned In Europe (it was in the other room & the effort to find it seemed too great), my next two Javier Marias books, and a book on Shackleton that my other boss gave me in light of my well-known obsession with polar expeditions.

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Nabokov's The Defense, designed by Paul Sahre

  • 500 new fairy tales were discovered in a vault in Germany. I never grew up into the folklorist I thought, as a child, I might, but I still find this news item quite bizarre and exciting.
  • JStor launches a beta of “Register and Read,” a free program to allow (capped, limited, but still) access to those not affiliated with academic institutions. Because I am not, this pleases me, though frankly I am unlikely to use it very often despite good intentions.
  • The Millions has a nice little article on the pleasures of used bookstores as mausoleums for deceased texts. The antiquarian book trade is an uneasy island of hope amidst the constant fretting about the Fate of the Book that is my worklife. 
  • I encourage the interested–fans of either Nabokov, cover design, or both–to spend some time reading Salon’s interview with John Bertram, the editor of a new book that collects cover designs of Lolita more in line with its horrific subject than the usual erotic offerings. This article in turn leads to Jacket Copy’s excellent two part case study on the difficulty of designing for the book, here and here. All fascinating considerations of how cover design can change both popular conception and critical consideration of a text (though of course the movie versions are also huge element in cementing the pop culture meaning of the term “lolita”).
  • Related to Jacket Copy:  is Peter Mendelsund perhaps one of the great cover designers of our times? Take a look at his covers–I guarantee that you’ll recognize more than one of them as iconic. I don’t love everything he does but he’s responsible for some of my favourites–the Peavar & Volokhonsky translations of Russian literature and the new Kafkas in particular. Here’s an interview with him over at Caustic Cover Critic, also interesting.
  • I’m in a particularly associative mood today. All this cover-thought has reminded me how much I loved Vintage Press’s recent redesign of the Nabokov covers (which Mendelsund contributed to:  he did King, Queen, Knave and it’s lovely). I already own most every Nabokov in various well-loved and unmatched editions but I am awfully tempted nonetheless by this set–the matchiness of it all, the conceit of the specimen box, and the three dimensional design element of these all tickle my covetous nature. I blame my job:  ever since I started at the bookstore I’ve developed a weakness for set collecting and attractive covers (dangerous!).

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Even more vibrantly red in person.

My gentleman caller, well aware of my passionate devotion to the Tournament, gave me a fantastic gift this week:  the official Rooster shirt! Alas, its profound and exalted meaning is lost on the plebeian masses and while wearing it out for the first time (because of course I put it on immediately) I already experienced what I expect will be a typical response to the enigmatic rooster. I’m sure I don’t need to outline the specifics, but it involves an expectation of sexual innuendo. No matter:  anyone who asks is treated to a thorough introduction to the illustrious Tournament, complete with incoherent stammering of excitement and an eager tour of my expectations. An excellent gift! I look forward to receiving my official tournament notebook in a few days or weeks (one never knows what to expect from the post office in this part of the country) so I can go full-on booknerd and coordinate my writing utensils with my garments. Some people match their shoes with their clothes; me, I do actually match my clothes to my books if at all possible.

Oh, the Tournament!  I am losing sleep, so great is my excitement. So far my bracket is unbroken but I do not expect this to last for long:  my confidence in my picks is going to get increasingly weaker as we progress into the second half of the bracket. Tomorrow’s match, Wil Wheaton’s judgement between State of Wonder and The Sisters Brothers, is a significant one, and while I’ve been pinned my hopes on the deWitt I am not sure. Uncertainty grows with each following match. I love it.

The comments are particularly enjoyable, as they always are. I’m quite in awe of the intelligent readings on display every day, and my own thoughts on many of the books have been enormously enriched. Still cannot believe how many ardent fans of The Devil All the Time came out to gnash teeth at its (justified, in my confident opinion) loss! Admiration of this particular book is something that no amount of praise can help me to understand. Despite natural disagreements and exempting a few hostile outliers it is all remarkably civil for the internet. I encourage anyone who is not participating to join in–it’s great fun.

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In December I received a postcard from my brilliant and well-read friend L. One-lined and cryptic, it read only, “When will Javier Marias win the Nobel Prize?”

Because I am merely a pallid striver in emulation of L.’s wideranged intellect, my immediate response was, “Who?” After google-educating myself–Marias is a Spanish novelist, translator, and lauded op-ed journalist; he counts among his admirers the illustrious Coetzee and Rushdie; Scott Esposito chose one of his books for his 2010 group read; he is in fact frequently bandied about as a strong candidate for the Nobel though less than half of his novels have been translated into English–I called her immediately to confess my deficit and request a recommendation on where to start. After lengthy rhapsodizing and extolling the quality of everything, she finally offered up a title:  A Heart So White.

Because I could not find any to buy locally and am disinclined to read difficult fiction in e-format, I turned to the library, which took its characteristically plodding time in procuring a copy; as a result, it was not til February that I held the book in my hands. Once in my possession, the book took a remarkably long time for me to read through, not because it was bad or dull or overly difficult, but because I kept getting caught in rereading loops that propelled me back to the beginning:  an unusual experience, for I am typically a plowingly linear reader on my first go through a book. Something about this one–a labrynthal quality of the prose, perhaps, or just half-terrified overidentification with the narrator–burrowed alarmingly into my brain and pulled me into its world. I loved it. This is the type of reading experience that doesn’t happen to me very often as an adult and any book that provides it is immediately propelled into an exalted category.

At its outset, A Heart So White seems, at first, to be a mystery of the sort that delves into the uncovering of sordid family secrets. It begins, hauntingly, with the unwanted image of a suicide:

I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra, and aimed her father’s gun at her heart …When they heard the shot, some five minutes after the girl had left the table, her father didn’t get up at once, but stayed there for a few seconds, paralysed, his mouth still full of food, not daring to chew or swallow, far less to spit the food out on to his plate

It’s a devastating opening, beautifully done, balanced tautly between the apathetic confusion of the servants, the polite horror of the luncheon’s guests, and the incomprehension of the no-longer-a-girl’s family. The death itself, the body, is described closely, but what remains strongest in my memory are the small details of the surrounding scene:  an ice-cream cake brought out by the maid who has not realized the occurrence of any tragedy; the father with his mouth still full of food, unable to swallow or spit, as he stands above his daughter’s body. It is all so utterly vivid and heartbreaking that I still am surprised that the whole episode is barely eight pages in my copy. These details are half a ploy, an aspect of the narrator’s stated desire not to know this tale, a conscious effort to slide the gaze away from the dead young woman.

I reread this opening chapter many times, as I’ve said; in part, I kept coming back to it as an anchor, a touchstone, to remind myself of what the novel might intend. I am glad that I did, that I ingrained this stark opening deeply into my mind; otherwise I might have been caught by the radically different narrative tone of the rest of the book and lost the thread of mystery that, despite many discursions, proved to be the frame of the book. On page nine the historical account ends and focus is turned the “I” of the first sentence:  Juan, the nephew of the dead young woman, is a thirty-four-year old interpreter fluent in four languages. He has just been married–a point of great surprise to every other character, who all consider him to be a natural life-long bachelor–and he is on his honeymoon. Though he believes that he loves his wife, Luisa, he is shadowed by an inexplicable sense of dread, a conviction that something in his marriage is fated to go terribly wrong. Ill omens lurk everywhere, a sense of dread and danger underlies actions and thoughts:  will young Luisa fall prey to these vague threats? will Juan? is Juan suffering under a family curse, or are the threats manifested from his own inability to commit to his wife? will their relationship survive, or are they caught in a spiral, doomed to repeat the tragic history of Juan’s parents?

This description makes the book sound quite plotful; I assure you, it is not. These questions are present, yes, and they are addressed and resolved satisfactorily by the end, but they very quickly receded from my interest, replaced by the solipsistic, stream-of-conscious fretting that is Juan’s primary reaction to the various taut encounters that make up the book. Though the book takes its title from Macbeth, from a line Lady Macbeth says to her husband after helping him to conceal his crime — “My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white,” a reference that was my first glimmer that guilt and complicity are two of Marias’ major themes — Juan reminds me of Hamlet in his indecision, his passivity, his propensity to react to every situation with a hasty retreat into soliloquies of paralyzed anxiety. Juan is obsessed with the transience of experience and, as a translator, seems compelled to hear and understand and remember; at the same time, he is tormented by the futility of this impulse, by the subjectivity of reality:

I have a tendency … to want to understand everything that people say and everything I hear, both at work and outside, even at a distance, even if it’s in one of the innumerable languages I don’t know, even if it’s an indistinguishable murmur or an imperceptible whisper, even if it would be better that I didn’t understand and what’s said is not intended for my ears, or is said precisely so that I won’t catch it. I can disconnect, but only in certain irresponsible states of mind or by making a great effort, and that’s why sometimes I’m glad that murmurs really are indistinguishable and whispers imperceptible and that there are so many languages that are strange and impenetrable to me, because then I can rest.

This is a book of eavesdropping and voyeurism, of conversations heard through walls, stray sly comments that may or may not be purposefully dropped, of correspondences consumed by characters other than their intended recipients. I kept thinking of Bakhtin, the literary theorist I spent the most time with in college, and his theories of dialogism:  if ever a book is highly dialogic this one is; it’s a book to make me long for academia. The mystery unfolds through these layers of dialogism with a sharp interpersonal violence; all information is unwelcome to our beleaguered Juan. Despite his self-description as pathologically eager to absorb every piece of information, Juan’s first sentence avowal that he does “not want to know” is a more apt description of his existence throughout the book; much of the tension comes from his unwillingness to say or do anything at all. I am reminded of Hamlet in Juan because his passivity is elevated beyond a mere character trait to a sort of frantic existential angst:  he is tormented by the dialectic between wanting to understand and the futility of communication; the desire to record and remember, to create a coherent narrative of a life, juxtaposed against the pointless repetition and subjectivity of existence; the inherent instability of both personality and reality:

Sometimes I have the feeling that nothing that happens happens, because nothing happens without interruption, nothing lasts or endures or is ceaselessly remembered, and even the most monotonous and routine of existences, by its apparent repetitiveness, gradually cancels itself out, negates itself, until nothing is anything and no one is anyone they were before, and the weak wheel of the world is pushed along by forgetful beings who hear and see and know what is not said, never happens, is unknowable and unverifiable. What takes place is identical to what doesn’t take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make of our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told. We pour all our intelligence and our feelings and our enthusiasm into the task of discriminating between things that will all be made equal, if they haven’t already been, and that’s why we’re so full of regrets and lost opportunities, of confirmations and reaffirmations and opportunities grasped, when the truth is that nothing is affirmed and everything is constantly in the process of being lost. Or perhaps there never was anything.

The above passage recurs throughout the book, elaborated each time with new–but always thematically coherent, linked through their relation to the larger Macbethian idea of action, inaction, and personal responsibility–questions and worries. I expect that some readers might find this repetition tiresome and annoying, but I loved it; it is a symphonic, polyphonic buildup, utterly accurate to my experience of this kind of ongoing obsessive anxiety. It is, to say the least, very intense, but luckily the book has some genuinely delightful episodes (my favourite: a wonderful scene–the first time that Juan and Luisa, also an interpreter and a highly respected one, meet while sharing a job–of willful misinterpretation between two political dignitaries) to add levity to the mixture of fretfulness and dark plot. Also–and luckily, because Juan really is a putz however much I might identify with his maunderings–there are some great side characters:  there is Ranz, Juan’s father, debonaire and firm in his withholding of information, cultured and charming despite his tragic past and his scurrilous business ties; Custardoy the Younger, an art forger, undesirable family friend, lecher and vulgarian and lifelong nemesis to Juan; Berta, Juan’s friend, former lover and fellow translator, a lonely expatriate adept at manipulating her hapless ex-lover into collusion. Even Luisa, the young wife, emerges as an interesting character, though this is almost accidental:  if there is an ebb point to my enthusiasm over this book it is in her characterization and that of their marriage, both of which are weak. I am inclined to think this an intentional choice, meant to illustrate something about Juan and his perhaps congenital inability to exist within a romantic relationship; even so, I do wish that there were more reasons given for their marriage beyond basic commonalities of both enjoying movies and cigarettes in bed:  the book puts forth an interesting, if cynical, theory on the structure of emotional obligation that underlies every relationship, and I would have liked more information to determine how Juan and Luisa fit into this rubric (particularly since it’s a system that Juan, at least, seems to accept as fundamentally valid).

In conclusion:  a wonderful, affecting book, interestingly structured, darkly compelling. I am absolutely eager to read more Marias:  I have already taken steps to get copies of All Souls and The Dark Back of Time, which I intend to read consecutively. I will give it a few months before I pick him up again, though; if his others get into my head the way that this one did I might not be able to bear it.

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The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like this and I did not particularly. Either my expectations warped my opinion or I’m flush with self-knowledge. To be fair, it was better than I’d feared–perhaps my statement that, having read DeLillo’s fictionalized account of the shot heard around the world in Underworld, I had already experienced the best and needed never to read another baseball-related piece of fiction was premature and brash. In fact, Mr. McGinty has convinced me that I must seek out The Natural for a far superior sports novel and I intend to–I somehow missed it years ago when I made a sweep through Bernard Malamud’s work.* We shall see for sure in a few months or whenever I do manage to locate a copy of the Malamud, but I suspect that this lead will be the best thing that Fielding bequeaths on me.

The Art of Fielding. Yes, demanding internet, I shall try to say a few words about the book itself. It’s about a shorstop who is suffering a crisis of confidence and the various people who are affected by this tragic (’cause it means the school might lose its chance to win for the first time ever–quite tragic in the novel’s small scope) occurrence. It is a college novel–one of my favourite fake subgenres–but also a sports novel–not my favourite narrative due to the inevitable predictability of the story arches. It could, actually, have been quite enjoyable, but several huge factors crippled it fatally. My, it had awful characters. Except for two fully realized personalities–team captain and mentor extraordinaire Mike Schwartz and lovestruck college president Guert Affenlight–everyone was thin and unconvincing, a transparent collection of plot devices masquerading as people. Terrible ending that even I–not, as I have said, an avid consumer of the sports narrative–could recognize as a towering cliche. Unremarkable, simple prose. Blurbs by my arch-nemesis Franzen, a distinctly Franzenesque feel to the whole affair–Franzen by way of a feel-good Disney sports film. And did I mention that the ending was terrible? And that the characters–particularly Cool Gay Roommate/Object of Desire and Wine-Coloured-Hair Rebellious Daughter/Plot Device–were cringingly bad? It’s not good when your characters are mostly flimsy, but when two of the main figures–the young gay man and the only woman in the entire book–are little more than their labels eyebrows must be raised.

I am, as happens so often with these types of books (see:  Freedom), in the minority. It’s been critically acclaimed but, more telling, my customers love this book, which speaks of a popular appeal both broad and deep. I could see it doing quite well in the tournament–at the very least, it will make it out of the first round, and if it is axed I expect we’ll see it again as a horrific baseball-concussed zombie. Ugh.

(*”Somehow” is misleading. I missed it precisely because I had at the time the ingrained habit of starting with every author’s lesser works and avoiding the titles they were most known for. It’s left a lot of striking gaps in my knowledge.)

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst

My gentleman friend could not make it through this book; he claims that its premise–gay Victorians–has been overdone of late, ridden into trenches of irredeemable cliche. Not being overfamiliar with the supposed ubiquity of the narrative, I enjoyed The Stranger’s Child very much. It does fall squarely in one of my wheelhouses:  I not-so-secretly adore (good)* historical fiction, particularly if it has Victorians and World War I and English manors and boarding schools and Oxford intellectuals. Hollinghurst covers all of this and–bonus!–builds his plot around the construction of an artistic legacy through the ages.  It’s reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Robertson Davies:  that is to say, it’s utterly delicious if you like that sort of thing. Since I am this book’s ideal reader I have no objective words on either its quality or its chances.

(*Byatt, Mantel, Dunnett, the like. No Philippa Gregory and her cohort for me, thank you very much.)

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje and I have never been close. My favourite book of his is The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which should tell you that I don’t connect well with his more traditional novels. The Cat’s Table was no exception. I felt like I should have liked it quite a bit–it’s about children running wild on a ship, after all, a plot that has worked well for others. But I didn’t care for it–maybe just because I read it relatively late in the lineup, when my patience for the themes and structural choices that it shares with so many of the other books had become worn. Like in The Last Brother we have a grown narrator reminiscing about life-altering childhood events; like The Sense of an Ending we have a meditation on memory and the perspective granted by time. I liked both of these things better in the works I read first. There is an attempt at a sensational, exciting plot, but it doesn’t fit, nothing fits together properly in this novel, it draws so many thematic conclusions that I have no idea what it was trying to do, and while I didn’t hate it I don’t consider it very worthy. It won’t last long in the Tournament.

The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock

A violent little book with little to redeem it. One of the few books from the Tournament that I actively wish I had not read. Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf has an excellent review  which thoroughly covers my complaints. I’m too busy working on forgetting it to say more–luckily, I’m sure that this process will be facilitated by its speedy elimination from the Tournament.

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Last year’s winner of the National Book Award, Salvage the Bones has the prize pedigree to back its advance in the Tournament. Personally, I hope that the judges will refrain from giving this lackluster novel any more attention than it has already garnered; I am convinced–and this sounds horrible, I’m sorry, but I am–that its acclaim rests on it being a very PC pick. This is a story about Hurricane Katrina, narrated by Esch, a poor, black, pregnant fifteen-year-old. I have problems with historical tragedy being used in novels; as touched upon in my discussion of The Last Brother, it is often used manipulatively, to give a book false emotional weight. I felt this to be exactly the case with Salvage:  there is just so little to the book beyond the storm, its long buildup and anticipation, its quickly (and absolutely tritely) resolved aftermath. It read to me like any number of Young Adult Problem Novels, a subgenre I am well acquainted with from my misspent youth and which I have grown to abhor; I half-suspect it of being written as a YA book and elevated to adult through marketing ploys. Wander through the young adult section of your local bookstore:  I guarantee you’ll find dozens of books that would sit more comfortably beside Salvage as its rightful peers than you might by perusing the past winners of the National Book Award.

The “searing narrative voice” is supposed to be the thing that elevates this book from the others. Perhaps I am coldhearted, but I was unaffected. Esch is a noncharacter; her one personality trait is her horribly, repetitively described pregnancy. I doubt whether Ward  has ever been pregnant herself:  if she has, surely she could think of a better way to describe the sensation beyond comparing the abdomen to a bowl of water, a phrase so overused that I came to dread its inevitable recurrence with each turn of the page. I do not even want to talk about the heavy-handed overarching metaphoric comparison between Esch and China, her brother’s beloved and vicious fighting pit bull who gives birth to her first litter of puppies just as Esch realizes the fact of her own pregnancy. I would really have to sit and think very hard to come up with a recent read that’s contained such a clunky and forced parallel.

Other characters also fail to rise above the one-trait descriptions of them:  there’s the basketball playing eldest brother who longs to escape a life of poverty through sports, the half-feral younger brother who likes to scuffle around beneath the house, the alcoholic and neglectful father, the skeezy not-boyfriend who obviously prefers his official girlfriend to Esch, the strong & silent “nice guy” friend of her brothers. The only interesting characters were Skeetah, the brother closest in age to Esch, and his vicious China. The relationship between the boy and his dog was the only compelling one in the book.

I do like the structure of the book, if not the content:  the bulk of the book takes place in the days leading up to the hurricane, and the slow build of tension and anticipation is effectively excruciating. Katrina itself is well-described, well-written, and utterly harrowing, almost enough to raise my opinion. A sense of resentment at the emotional manipulation of the whole affair, combined with yet another terrible ending–this one falsely optimistic, pat, and overly simplistic–prevent that possibility. If this were in fact a YA novel I would judge it on kinder terms, but it is a prize winning adult novel, and I feel it to be utterly mediocre by those standards.

Green Girl, Kate Zambreno

A collection of vignettes about Ruth, a young woman adrift in London, told through the critical gaze of a Mysterious Narrator (presumably Ruth’s future self, but who knows; this intriguing stance was never resolved or much explored). Ruth is a “Green Girl,” a pretty waif utterly concerned with the surface of things, with her own surface. Her shallowness is the plot of the novel:  nothing happens, she is simply presented in various situations and then ridiculed for her failings. Positive reviewers have alluded to an empathy with Ruth, have suggested that her shallowness holds up a mirror to their own to a striking effect. I did not have the same experience–I found the character too emphatically empty to relate with in the least. Even the most appearance-concerned young women I have known, the most apparently stereotypical black-dress-buying US-weekly-reading makeup-smearing heel-wearing starlet-aspiring girls, are, indeed, people, each with thoughts and depths and worthinesses. I could find no reflection of reality in Ruth, nothing that matched my own experience of modern femininity. I kind of get what Zambreno might have been trying to do, but her social critique–if that is what this loose mess was intended to be–never advances beyond a profile of the so-called “Green Girl.” There is no deeper level, no greater concern, no interesting conclusion or implication. Like its character, Green Girl was, for me, nothing more than a pretty concept masking a hollow center. I will be shocked if this makes it very far at all in the Tournament (though I halfway suspect that its first judge, Edith Zimmerman, might find more value in it than I. We will see!)

Open City, Teju Cole

My surprise favourite of the books I hadn’t yet read. I disliked it while reading, but since finishing it has haunted my mind and encouraged my thoughts in directions they would not otherwise have gone. I  love it when a book does this, find it surprisingly rare, and value highly anything that stays with me for so long.  I rather intend to get my hands on a copy again and write a post dedicated to this one so I shan’t say more.

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Ariel, glaring, does not understand why I would construct a pile and then refuse to let her topple it.

I bought a few books this week and then, as if I don’t already own hundreds of unread books, I picked up a stack of interlibrary loans yesterday. Several of these were impulse orders after reading reviews on blogs; alas, this was before I had this space and so proper credit will hopefully be forthcoming along with rhapsodic thanks for the leads. There are several here that I am just itching to read. The pile contains:

  • Six Records of a Floating Life, Shen Fu — This, I am sure, is a recommendation from an unknown blogger. I haven’t read many Eastern classics but have been wanting too. This, “a uique insight … into nineteenth-century China” told by a scholar turned civil servant, sounds just fantastic.
  • Black Swan Green, David Mitchell — I’ve read this, used to have a copy, gave it away in a move, and have regretted it ever since. I found this in the tiny bookstore space in the basement of the library:  perhaps my best-spent dollar of the week. I may not actually reread this anytime soon but am thrilled to have it back.
  • The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer — I have to wait a bit to read his new one, Zona, the consideration of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, so I thought I’d seek out the only other one of his nonfiction that I haven’t read. Unable to contain my anticipation, I read the first few pages in the library parking lot and continued on when I made it home. It’s about the legacy of memory built up around World War I; because it’s Dyer it’s going to be very incisive. First twenty pages bode very well–this is the book that is making me feel like I’d rather not go into work today. Bonus element:  it fits thematically into season 2 of Downton Abbey, which I loved passionately until my attention span broke and I took a month-long hiatus.
  • Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov — I’m a big fan of Melville House. I got this based entirely on title and cover. (Such a great, stylized cover!) I frequently buy or order books without knowing more about them than a slim endorsement:  a certain publisher, a stray mention of its worth from a trusted (or not trusted!) source. I knew nothing about this before it arrived–turns out it’s a Ukranian crime novel about a failed novelist turned crafter of “living obituaries” and his mournful pet penguin Misha. I’m halfway through now. Thoughts pending–all I will say is that the penguin is a wonderful character.
  • I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett — The last of my beloved Tiffany Aching novels! I’m not entirely sure that I want to read this yet–perhaps I should keep saving it for an emergency. The thought of a world without another Tiffany Aching book to lift my spirits when I need it grieves me sorely. For the uninitiated:  Tiffany Aching lives in a sparsely populated corner of Discworld, Pratchett’s famous and sprawling fantasy land/palate for hilarious satire. She is a young witch in training, and, well. You remember one Hermione Granger? Tiffany Aching is like Hermione only funnier, smarter and more human; also, her awesomeness is never impeded by dull Rons and Harrys holding her back. These are some of the few books I get really evangelical about in the store; I think I’ve frightened young girls into buying them as their post-Potter reads with the sheer tidal force of my enthusiasm. Ahhhh. Deepbreath. In short: Tiffany Aching. Wonderful.
  • Is that a Fish in Your Ear?, David Bellos — I’ve started this already. It’s rather frothy compared to other nonfiction books on translation that I’ve read, but I think it’ll be an enjoyable light read.
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carre — This was a meditated impulse buy at work. Loved the movie, never read the book. Numerous customers have sung its praises to me–usually, heartbreakingly, while simultaneously smearing the film as inferior–and Mr. McGinty’s good opinion was the tipping point. Also it has a really fantastic cover.
  • The Dog of the South, Charles Portis — Once again I’ve got no idea what this is about, where it even takes place, if it’s a western or more traditional fiction! I shall not even look at the book to try to determine these things:  I like surprises! I think this was on someone’s best-of list for 2011, which reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read more Portis since reading and adoring True Grit? Or maybe I ordered it six months ago and it’s just now arrived? (Not uncommon in my library system.) Either way, I can’t wait to try this.
  • Not pictured:  two ebooks from netgalley:  Doc by Mary Doria Russell (because Doc Holliday is my favourite & if it’s good I’ll be able to sell a lot of copies in the summer to tourists looking for novels about the Wild West) and Dogma by Lars Iyer (because it’s Melville House & the first one was enjoyable).

The only difficulty now is self-restraint:  my impulse is to start them all at once. I am not a book monogamist.

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