Dogs of Eusa
He tuk 2 gray dogs with him thear nayms wer Folleree & Folleroo.
From The Eusa Story in Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
In 1860, a brutal murder in a fancy country house in the UK produced a scenario that was to serve as a template for many mystery novels in the future. A Mr Whicher, among the first Scotland Yard detectives to act in a Sherlock Holmes-type capacity, is sent to the home of the Kent family to make sense of the case.
What's interesting about the real-life story is not so much its similarities with the classic whodunnits made after it, but the differences: the victim is a young child, the detective universally disliked and ultimately unsuccessful, and external circumstances like culture, politics, and the press play a much bigger part in the proceedings than they ever do in an Agatha Christie novel.
As such, the book is a failure as a mystery novel, but a success as a social history of Victorian England and the place crime took in it. The author is, however, long-winded, taking time to explain such niceties as the etymology of the word 'to detect', and generally repeating herself again and again. It could have been shorter and better.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The release of the last and seventh part of the mind-bogglingly successful series about the boy wizard excited me enough to stand in line with a lot of witches, wizards and other weirdos at one in the morning to get a copy of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows". That's me, whose earlier book reviews on this blog included works by such eminent authors as Saramago, Eco, Chekhov, Orwell and Mishima.
Surprised? You shouldn't be. The thing about JK Rowling is, paraphrasing what someone once said about Shakespeare, that she's really good, despite everyone saying she's really good. I don't like everything about the Harry Potter books: they're not gems of poetic lyricism (although her vocabulary betrays her immense enjoyment of the English language), and in general, I think they could be a lot shorter. But her imagination easily equals that of Roald Dahl and her ingenuity of plot rivals that of such marvelous engineers as Agatha Christie. On top of that, she brings real emotional power to the stories, touching upon such children's book taboos as pain, depression and fallibility. Or to put it another way: she didn't get that billion dollars (nor could she have) on hype alone.
So it is because I know she could have done so much better that I'm sad to give her last tome the thumbs down. Rowling travels the risky road of breaking with tradition, trading the familiar settings of Hogwarts and its exciting Quidditch matches for nondescript marshlands and forests that appeal to no one's imagination. "HP7" is damp and dull, and there's an underlying sense that JK was happy to finally rid herself of that monster clinging to her back for all those years. Most of the questions from books 1 through 6 had already been answered satisfactorily on Web forums by fans, and "Hallows" confirmed all but the most inane ones. There's much less humor than before, but no real darkness to take its place, like in its brilliantly executed (no pun intended) predecessor. If you've read the first six parts, you'll read this one, too; if you haven't, by all means start reading the series (especially parts 3, 4 and 6), but read this one only to find out how it ends.
The Raw Shark Texts
Why is it that the invariably male heroes of original and disturbing sci-fi stories always have love interests that are the flattest of characters? Sam Lowry's Jill in "Brazil", Truman Burbank's Sylvia in "The Truman Show" and Leonard's nameless wife in "Memento", all share a sketchiness that seems almost unavoidable in this type of narrative.
Steven Hall's "The Raw Shark Texts", a tale of conceptual fish and lost memories, is no exception to the rule. You can't really blame hero Eric Sanderson not remembering Clio Aames on his amnesia, because the apparent love of his life is truly forgettable all by herself. As for the rest of the novel, well, that all depends on how much you're willing to go along with its bizarre premises.
Sanderson wakes up in his house with no memories whatsoever, but soon discovers that he is on the run from a Ludovician, a type of shark that is not exactly like other fish. This one consists not of teeth and gills but of thoughts and ideas &em;but that doesn't seem to make it any less deadly. It can pop up anywhere, but there are ways to defend yourself against it. Like a geeky Roy Scheider, Eric flees, investigates and ultimately confronts the Great White on a journey of self-discovery in the most literal sense of the word, helped by a few friends he finds along the way.
This book has lots of problems. For one, its fantastical imaginations beg not so much a suspension of disbelief as a suspension of stupefied, head-shaking amazement. What saves such incredibility is normally a well-written story that pulls you in.
But this novel is written in a wooden, artificially experimental style. Hall produces countless new compound nouns, finds typography endlessly fascinating and overuses the apparently mind-bogglingly original construction 'a <sentence> <noun>' (as in 'a fucked if I know gesture').
What's more, the novel is full of great ideas, but without much of a storyline to string them together. Rather, the protagonist moves from one place to the next in road movie fashion, his personality as blank as those of the people around him. Hall forgets what the makers of that gem of weirdness, the "Lost" TV series, remember: in the end, it's about the people, not the strange stuff that happens to them. I felt no empathy for Eric Sanderson because he failed to convince as a human being.
If this all sounds too negative, it's because I don't want to give away the small pearls of inventiveness you can find in this book. If you like somewhat brainy prose and could care less for style or round characters, you might very well enjoy this book, and I wouldn't want to spoil it to you. For the rest of us, there's better fare out there.
Boris Akunin - The Winter Queen and Murder on the Leviathan
Let's review two books today, both by the Russian Boris Akunin. These two ripping yarns, one an international espionage thriller, the other a classic Agatha Christie-type murder mystery, both take place in tsarist Russia and feature the likable hero Erast Fandorin, a young, bright, sometimes gullible mastermind who uncovers one devious scheme after another. Akunin, in real life Grigory Chkhartishvili, a literary scholar and translator of Japanese, deftly weaves different cultures (and the prejudices about them) into the plot. His action-packed plots unravel at a fast pace, and there's twists and turns aplenty. I read both books in excellent English translations, and recommend them heartily if you're in the mood for some old-fashioned adventure.
The Meaning of Tingo
The Dutch have a useful word, 'natafelen' (translates literally as 'after-tabling'): it means the time following the last course of a dinner, at which the assembled party remains at the table, talking.
"The Meaning of Tingo" does not list this word, but it does list many other untranslatable words in languages from all over the world. As far as I could check, it occasionally gives the wrong spelling or meaning, but this little volume remains a humble homage to the endless diversity of human language.
My personal favorite was "sabaha bi-wajhi", Arabic for "beginning the day by seeing someone's face".
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Harper Lee wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1960, and didn't publish anything since.
Maybe she's afraid of messing with perfection: the book is perfectly balanced: funny and grim, childlike and mature, noble and savage. Lee slowly pushes the character Atticus to the front of the stage as the book progresses in a way that is nothing short of brilliant, as is the novel's transformation from a Lindgren-type story of kids in the South at its best, into a dark tale of the South at its worst. It's kind, but never sentimental. That is how a good book should be.
Plus ça change, plus c'est le meme
Look at the list of books below. Bold the ones you've read, italicize the ones you might read, cross out the ones you won't, underline the ones on your book shelf, and place parentheses around the ones you've never even heard of.
The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
(The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger)
His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J. K. Rowling
The Life of Pi - Yann Martel
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story - George Orwell
Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
1984 - George Orwell
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J. K. Rowling
One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
(The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini)
(The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold)
Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut
The Secret History - Donna Tartt
Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis
(Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides)
(Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell)
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë
(Atonement - Ian McEwan)
(The Shadow of The Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Dune - Frank Herbert
Sula by Toni Morrison
(Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier)
The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
(Gain by Richard Powers)
(Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner)
(Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino)
(Veronica by Mary Gaitskill)
(Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames)
The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
(Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber)
(Brick Lane by Monica Ali)
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Gospel according to Jesus Christ by José Saramago
Cathedral by Raymond Carver
Best New American Voices 2005
I'm a sucker for short story anthologies. This collection of the best that American writing schools had to offer in 2005 was a bit mixed, but well worth the low price. My favorite was "Essay #3: Leda and the Swan", a poignant love story written in a clumsy and hilarious high school style that reminded me of Ring Lardner. "Creatures of a Day" takes the concept of "Birdy" to a new level of craziness: its protagonist lives among chickens.
Also striking was the large amount of stories written by and/or about immigrants from Asia (almost half of the stories).
Jonathan Safran Foer - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
I liked 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close', a book that features blank pages, pages with one line of text on them, pages with pictures of keyholes, victorious tennis players and a person jumping from the WTC on 9/11, pages with ever-denser text turning into an almost solidly black page, and so on. The reason I liked the book was not because of these oddities, but it also wasn't despite them. In the end, they seem a bit contrived and unnecessary for what is at the same time a playful and moving story of a desperate 9-year-old boy trying to make sense of the death of his father on that fateful New York day in 2001. The boy's innocent, overly brainy approach to the tragic events that surround him remind the reader of that other recent book about an emotionally disconnected little boy, 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'
His story is interspersed with that of the boy's grandparents, who once lived together in Dresden, both miraculously survived the gruesome WW2 bombings, and reunite, full of remorse, mourning and survivor guilt. The two stories run parallel for most of the book, and intertwine at the end.
José Saramago - Ensaio sobre a Lucidez
Discovering the work of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago has been the most recent joy of my book-reading life. The fiercely atheist "Gospel according to Jesus Christ" and the dark fable "Blindness" are novels where style and content work together perfectly, flawlessly and tragically. These are not exactly feelgood books, but they are meaningful and more importantly, beautiful.
All of which means that when I say that "Ensaio sobre a Lucidez" ("Seeing" in English) is a bit of a disappointment, it still ranks high above most literature published these days.
As a counterpart and sequel to "Blindness" (in which blindness becomes a contagious disease that unhinges society in unimaginable ways), "Seeing" is more obviously political and harder to go along with. In "Blindness", every new event in the story seems to develop logically from what came before. By contrast, in "Seeing", over 80 percent of the voting population casts a blank vote in the elections, prompting politicians to take violently oppressive action. I don't pretend to know what would happen in such a situation, but I think it's quite a leap of the imagination to assume this kind of response.
That said, there is still Saramago's great style to admire. He sticks to his long strings of sentences in vast paragraphs (very Latin American), not mentioning any character by name, and not numbering or titling chapters. It's a book you read in a few gos.
The Anchor Book of Modern African Stories
The Anchor Book of Modern African Stories was my first real confrontation with African literature, and what I've learned is that there is hardly such a thing. There seems to be a sharp divide between North African (read: Arabian) literature on the one hand, and central and southern African literature on the other. The best story in the book is by Ken Saro-Wiwa, a name you may have heard: he was the Nigerian writer who was killed by his government despite extensive international pressure. What the story shows is that a great talent was lost with him.
Writer's Advice 2
Some time ago, I quoted Russian author Anton Chekhov and his list of writing tips. Now, here is another list, courtesy of the famous British writer Roald Dahl (found in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More):
- You should have a lively imagination.
- You should be able to write well. By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader's mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift, and you either have it or you don't.
- You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, and month after month.
- You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.
- You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to fire you if you don't turn up for work, or to tick you off if you start slacking.
- It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humor . This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children, it's vital.
- You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks that his work is marvelous is heading for trouble.
Umberto Eco - Baudolino
Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages were a pretty happy time. Sure, you had your occasional bubonic plague and witch burning, but in comparison, the Romans had cholera and fed innocent people to the lions.
The embodiment of this carefree, cheerful lifestyle is Baudolino, a poor nobody who finds himself whisked away from his home and thrown into the court of a king who adopts him like a son. Baudolino watches his 'father' Frederick wreak havoc upon Italy's stubbornly resisting cities.
In the second half of the book, Baudolino sets off in search of the mysterious Priest John, who supposedly rules over a land in the East. Even the existence of this Priest is questionable, but as we discover, the Middle Ages were also a time in which concepts like truth and proof had different meanings than they do today. Not only do people reason in chaotic, unpredictable ways, they also don't find the truth all that relevant. Baudolino and his friends carry a number of skulls around on their travels, and try to sell them off as the same relic, John the Baptist's head, in various locations.
The best part of the book describes Baudolino's arrival in a faraway city populated by strange creatures such as the one-legged sciapod, the headless blemnya, and so on. Eco lets Baudolino tell these stories with a straight face as he tells them to a friend, which makes them all the better for us, the modern audience. What Eco attempts to convey is that, in those days, these strange creatures really did exist --much like God really existed at the time: they were as real to people as a tree or a car are to us today.
Where Eco fails, as he has in the past, is in the utter absence of any true emotion or passion in the book. Here, as in, say, The name of the rose, there is a love story somewhere, but it is as forced as J. Random Babe tagging along a Schwarzenegger or a Bruce Willis in an action movie. Eco's strength, then, is his encyclopedic knowledge and in the ability to play with truth and fiction.
Stephen Jay Gould: I Have Landed
The subtitle of this selection of essays may well have been, "How Wrong We Were", because the vast majority of them discusses well-known and lesser-known fallacies in scientific and pseudo-scientific reasoning. Although some are interesting and others are downright enlightening, it's remarkable that none of them concern today's "serious" scientists. Gould seems to want to avoid antagonizing his colleagues, or he truly believes current scientific theory to be free of bias --neither scenario sounds very nice. As a result, he comes across as a friendly grandfather: very wise and full of fascinating stories, but ultimately a bit stuffy and complacent.
Antony and Cleopatra – William Shakespeare
Both my ignorance of Roman history and the sparse annotations in this edition of Shakespeare's "sequel to Julius Caesar" made the text difficult. Maybe seeing it performed will help.
The original edition did not indicate where acts or scenes began or ended. But if you define "whenever everybody goes offstage" as a scene change, the play consists of a large number of very short scenes. Add to this stage indications such as "Enter Caesar, with his army" and a plethora of minor characters with only a handful of lines each, and you understand why this play is not often staged.
George Orwell - Decline of the English Murder and other Essays
|Reading these essays about obscene postcards, Rudyard Kipling and 'nationalism' (including other –isms such as Zionism or Trotskyism) is rediscovering Orwell. I'd read "1984" but had almost forgotten the author's political and social intelligence. In this volume, he rises above left-wing or right-wing, avoids sensationalism, and writes clear, well-thought-out arguments. Talking about, say, Dickens, he observes that the writer was not the catalyst of social change he's often made out to be; but he doesn't think Dickens was a bad writer. Orwell proves that being nuanced doesn't mean being spineless, noncommittal or even intellectualistic –-it means intelligence, honesty and open-mindedness.|
Russell Hoban - Turtle Diary
|Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker is one of my favorite novels. Turtle Diary, however, did little to excite me. Toggling between the perspectives of a middle-aged divorced man sharing a flat with fellow loners, and a female middle-aged children's book writer, the book shows the two to have similar minds and thoughts. They even team up to liberate turtles from the zoo and release them into the ocean. But whatever spark there was soon fizzles and the two go their separate ways, each somewhat changed but not unburdened of their problems. I found this short novel too dreary and too uneventful.|
Blast from the Past - Kinky Friedman
|A friend told me once about a Jewish cowboy called Kinky Friedman, a country songwriter ('They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore') detective novelist ('God Bless John Wayne'), and a gubernatorial candidate for Texas, with bipartisan support (both Clinton and Dubya are fans).|
Reason enough to try 'Blast from the Past', which tells of Kinky's first sleuthing. In it, he cracks wiser than a Marlowe full of booze. Problem is, if you strip away the one-liners (admittedly, that's more stripping than your average Choo-Choo LaVerne does in her entire career), the plot is about as hollow as a ten-gallon Stetson.
All's Well That Ends Well - William Shakespeare
|For a Shakespeare play, "All's well that ends well" is pretty short and light on its feet. It resembles "Measure for Measure" but its plot is simpler, its characters less elaborate. Helena, a beautiful orphan uses her dead father's medicinal skills to cure the king of France. Overjoyed, the king permits her to marry above her class to the very unwilling Bertram. Panicking, Bertram joins the army and, while on campaign, tries to get into a certain Diana's panties. But Helena has followed him there and sleeps with him instead, unbeknownst to him. Embarrassment and hilarity ensue. A decent comedy.|
The Vintage Book of War Stories
|As I'm a sucker for short story anthologies, I was somewhat disappointed to find out that these are not stories, but mostly excerpts from novels about twentieth-century wars. Still, I can imagine worse stuff to read than, say, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Heinrich Böll, Ernest Hemingway, Italo Calvino, and Shusako Endo. Although the books quoted were written at different moments and in different places, there is an unnerving consistency in the portrayal of cruel, dramatic events. Unlike any other event, it seems, war picks people up and sweeps them away, a bit like a natural disaster, only longer-lasting and much more destructive.|
Mario Vargas Llosa – Los cuadernos de Don Rigoberto
Vargas Llosa explores virtually every sexual fetish in this novel. Each chapter consists of an erotic fantasy of Don Rigoberto about his estranged wife, Lucrecia; an open letter to convicted fetishists and editors of nudie magazines; Lucrecia getting a visit from her son, Fonchito; and an anonymous love letter sent to either Rigoberto or Lucrecia.
Although the book didn't have the same impact on me as some of Vargas Llosa's other novels, he's definitely skilled at writing erotic (as distinct from pornographic) fiction, and at writing, period. The uninitiated may want to try some of his other novels first, though.
Tobias Wolff - The Night in Question
|A fine collection of short stories by a contemporary expert of the genre. Wolff can be considered a successor to Carver, but to me he is lighter on his feet, funnier, more accessible, but also a bit less subtle, less poetic, and a lot less real. His stories often have more conventional plot twists, but the ingenuity of their execution is masterful. Especially 'The Other Miller' and 'Mortals' are well-constructed. Each story is exactly short enough to deliver the punch required of this type of fiction. Many other short story writers could take a hint from him in this respect.|
Anton Chekhov - The Duel and other stories
Another Penguin collection of Chekhov stories, this one ranging from novella-length (the title story is some 120 pages long) to normal length (the last one is 11 pages). The stories typically feature protagonists trapped in a set of circumstances they desperately wish to escape, and always fail to.
Chekhov has the rare ability to be distant and compassionate at the same time, and in this collection, he excels in that respect. For example, "The Black Monk" describes hallucinatory episode in a clinical, matter-of-fact way, "Murder" is not an exciting thriller, but a hauntingly normal story about one cousin killing another.
Dave Eggers - You Shall Know Our Velocity
|In 1982, the Argentinian author Julio Cortázar and his wife Carol Dunlop decided to go an epic journey from Paris to Marseille. What would make this usually boring drive through France extraordinary was their plan to stop at each and every parking along the highway. This stretched their trip from mere hours into days. The goal of the adventure, to verify that Marseille really exists, was equally asburd.|
Twenty years later, American author Dave Eggers wrote a novel about two guys, Will and Hand, who attempt to travel around the world in a week, and in the process, to get rid of some $32,000 that one of them has earned for being in an advertisment. They intend to give the money in huge amount to complete strangers.
'You shall Know our Velocity' is an exhilarating, infectious book that veers between the silly (Hand speaking in the broken English of the Senegalese or Estonians around him) and the tragic (Will, full of rage and sorrow, reminiscing about their friend's death). I'd call it 'Kerouacish' if it wasn't so much a book in its own right and of its own time. So let's settle on 'full of life', 'uplifting' and 'plain good writing'. The fact that I bought it dirt cheap in a bookstore selling leftovers from major bookstore chain is civilization's loss and my gain. Hope you enjoyed that coffee, Mr Eggers –I paid half of it.
Anton Chekhov - The Party and other Stories
|Chekhov can leave you with the 'short-story sensation': the strange feeling of having been plunged into someone's life and then pulled out abruptly. You're uncertain how events might unfold next, but also aware that you've witnessed intimacy. This is strongest in 'An Unpleasant Business', in which a doctor hits his orderly and subsequently can't fire the man or sacrifice himself; and in 'A Nervous Breakdown', in which a law student obsesses over the problem of prostitution.|
Unlike Chekhov's early work, the stories in this collection are long ('My Life' is technically a novella), complex and melancholy. Some I found difficult.
True Tales of American Life
|This is a collection of hundreds of short short stories by ordinary people, sent in to writer Paul Auster when he hosted a radio show. Only some stories are, as Auster explains, works of literature; but they all have a distinctive, sober clarity. As a panorama of everyday American life, it's truly beautiful. Strangely frequent are stories about weird coincidences: items lost, then found again years later in flea markets thousands of miles away; people meeting each other again and again by chance. Since lots of people apparently experienced this kind of stuff, it seems to make it almost normal.|
3 Japanese Novels: Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion), by Yukio Mishima
|The strangest, but also the best of the three Japanese novels deals with the true story of a stuttering, ugly young Buddhist monk whose wretched self-hate culminates in his setting fire to the Temple in the title.|
The book is hard to understand, but creates a strange mix between beauty and cruelty. The monk, obsessed with his ugliness, projects his personality onto everything around him, including the Temple, which becomes something of a wrathful demon in his life, standing there so passively and refusing to be disturbed by the ages.
Definitely a book I'd recommend, but not an easy read.
3 Japanese Novels: Chimmoku (Silence), by Shusaku Endo
|I was surprised to find that this book was about catholicism, just about the last theme I'd expect to find in a Japanese novel. It shows the bloody and cruel persecution of the first catholics in Japan, who are forced to step on a crucifix as a proof of renouncing their faith. The protagonist, a Portuguese priest, is forced to either undergo this torment or watch fellow believers be murdered.|
I found the dilemma very interesting because it exactly explains why I'm not religious. The idea that you could even consider sacrificing human life to an abstract higher power is obscene to me. The priest renounces God and lives out his days in a vacant existence.
3 Japanese Novels: Kagi (The Key), by Junichiro Tanizaki
|A couple have felt the eroticism leave their marriage. Each of them decides to experiment sexually and record their experiences in a diary. Both leave their diaries for the other to find, but neither ever reads the other's.|
The wife drinks herself into a stupor. The husband secretly photographs his sleeping, naked wife, then has his son-in-law develop the pictures. The son-in-law seduces the wife, who eagerly responds, eventually giving herself to him completely.
The book is well-written, Freudian, but in the end quite cold. It reminded me a bit of Die Traumnovelle, the novella on which Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut was based. Anyway, maybe cultural and/or generational barriers are in the way here, but I didn't feel the erotic tension that I assume should be there.