Friday, February 24, 2017

Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle

Farrar, Straus and Giraux, 2017
224 pp

arc, thanks to Powell's Indiespensable and to the publisher

The very first word that popped into my head after finishing this novel was "strange."  That's a positive in my reading universe, since I actually prefer books that are a fair distance from ordinary.
I'm not going to do plot in any big way here, because once again, to tell is to spoil and I don't want to do that.  What I will say is that readers who are expecting a horror novel or thriller based on the back-cover blurb may want to think twice, because it is neither.

The novel opens in the late 1990s, in the small midwestern town of Iowa, Nevada at the Video Hut where young Jeremy Heldt works as cashier.  Normally it's a routine job -- people turn in their videos, pick another one, and move along.  But all of that is about to change, when more than one person tells Jeremy that there's something on the tape they'd rented.  Jeremy takes a look at She's All That, and discovered that someone had indeed "transferred a scene" onto the movie.  At first his reaction is "who cared," but then he's reminded by another customer that there was something weird about the film Targets and decided to take a look for himself. The woman who'd first reported the anomalies was curious enough to take detailed notes about what she'd seen, as did Jeremy's boss when she watched. Unlike the customer, though, Sarah Jane actually recognizes the location "beyond question,"  and makes a trip to the place where she meets the current owner.  Her visit is where this story really begins, and with that I will say no more.

I can see why some people have been disappointed; many readers thought the novel should have moved along different genre lines, because the first few chapters set up a scenario not unlike several horror novels I've read. I'm not at all disappointed though,  because a) I tend to go into a book without expectations and b) again based on reader negatives, I like the move in and out of the present because it makes for a more fully-developed story.  In the long run, I found Universal Harvester to be mainly about absence, loss, and those who are left behind who are often stuck in a sort of purgatory to cope in any way they can. Another thing that comes out in this story is that we may think we really know someone, only to discover that we may never actually truly understand them. And finally, I also saw in this book a story about a disappearing way of life as time and technology make their marks on society and on individuals as well.

I enjoyed this book,  and while I have to agree that it does tend to meander a bit, when all is said and done it is a poignant novel, and despite the fact that it turns out not to have been a horror novel, it's frightening enough in its own way.  The best way to read it is to keep an open mind and concentrate on what it is, rather than on what you think it should have been.

real reviews:
NPR, by Carmen Maria Machado
LA Times, by Michael Schaub

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

from January -- Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig

Vintage, 1991
originally published as El beso de la mujer araña, 1976
translated by Thomas Colchie
281 pp


Still behind both readingwise and postingwise, so this will be a short post as I continue to go through my January reads.   I think it's a shame that I just don't have time to give this beautifully-written novel the attention it deserves, but I  have a LOT to catching up to do both in the book world and in the real one.  In my opinion, Kiss of the Spider Woman is an exquisite novel, one I could not put down until the very last word.

To give away too much about this book is to spoil, so it will be just barebones here. Set in Argentina in the mid-1970s,   Luis Molina and Valentín Arregui are cellmates in a prison -- Molina, a gay window dresser, for corruption of a minor, and Valentín for being a Marxist guerilla who will not give over any information to the authorities.  Molina spends much of their time together recounting films he's seen, which at first seems like an escape mechanism, but as the novel progresses, it becomes very clear that there's much more than passing time going on. As Molina works his way through several movies, the reader begins to notice that they cover a wide range of themes, including  political awareness, power, questions of identity and the true nature of the characters, sacrifice, betrayal, and the nature of relationships, but even more importantly, they are all about different forms of repression and imprisonment. The movies offer both prisoners a chance to begin serious and meaningful dialogue about their own inner anxieties, and their relationship becomes closer as they begin to open up to each other. But of course there's more than meets the eye here, leading to terrible, tragic consequences.

The films provide great insight into various means of repression forced on others by outside forces; it is also, in part, a story which examines the ways in which different people seek to transcend their own forms of imprisonment. Obviously, there's much, much more but this post just has to do for the time being.

Like so many great novels, Kiss of the Spider Woman has been studied, scrutinized, analyzed and it has become the topic of a number of scholarly works, so there are numerous places to turn to for serious analysis if anyone's interested.  As I said earlier, I just don't have the time right now to give it the recognition it deserves.  It is not very often I use the term "beautiful" to describe a novel, but it certainly fits in this case.  Kiss of the Spider Woman appears in Boxall's original 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, and while it doesn't seem to have been a lot of readers' cup of tea, in my opinion, it's one that should not be missed. After reading the book, see the film -- absolutely amazing.

Friday, February 10, 2017

real-world book group read: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

W.W. Norton, 1993
originally published 1899
324 pp
read in January


"The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings." 

The original,  intended title of this novel was A Solitary Soul, which once you've read the book, actually makes a lot of sense. Both titles work well, though, since main character, Edna Pontellier, is both "awakened" to her passions and to her own mind, and afterwards sets out to try live the life she wants, defying the social conventions of her class, of nature, of her gender, and of her time.  It's a lovely book and the story itself is quite short -- this particular edition has a lot of commentary and critical contemporary reviews which bumps up the page count, but the story itself ran to only 109 pages.  It's to her credit  that the author was able to express so much in such a brief space and come up with a work that is so powerful that it still resonates more than one hundred years later.

The story is very well known, so I won't rehash it here. As far as the book group goes, The Awakening prompted a great discussion as we talked mainly about Edna and about the other women in this story (Adele Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz) and how they may have represented two alternative paths, both rejected by Edna.  The men also became a focal point of discussion, as did the fact that Edna's privileged life allowed her to make the choices she did, since she had servants to do everything including taking care of her children, leading to a discussion about the lack of choices among women in lower classes.  And then, of course, there's the ending, which we talked about for quite a long time.

Reading over several readers' comments on this book, a LOT of people were unhappy with Edna, and I'd be lying if I said I would have given her an award for mother of the year. On one hand, it's  possible to see the book focusing on someone who refused to give up on freeing herself from the strictures that bind her as an individual;   on the other, some people have seen The Awakening as a "cautionary tale" about "the danger of elevating passion over love," or as one person noted, a reminder of the consequences of people "especially women" stepping "outside those unforgiving boundaries."

The only negative (and not for me since I read quite widely in books of this period) is that the prose style can be a bit tedious, but once you've figured it out, the story just pops right out at you and you're hooked.  I can very highly recommend this book -- considering how long ago it was written, it's very much pertinent today.

do not miss this article:

"The Awakening: Learning to Swim," by Barbara Kingsolver

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Bleeding of the Stone, by Ibrahim al-Koni

I haven't posted in a while. Two reasons -- one, Larry and I have been very ill with some stupid respiratory virus that someone so nicely shared with us; two, the other day I was scrolling through facebook and saw this

from Wittitudes

and thought to myself, yep -- that is definitely me, since as I've discovered,  recent events have yielded a multitude of WTF moments that I'm struggling to cope with, bringing on stress-induced lethargy, which is a struggle to try to overcome. Anyway, the point is that it's been a beyond-tough month.

The Bleeding of the Stone is the work of Libyan author Ibrahim al-Koni.  Mr. al-Koni, according to the blog Arabic Literature (In English), was born in 1948,
"raised in Libya's Fezzan region among nomadic, Tamasheq-speaking Tuareg. It wasn't until he was twelve that he began to formally study Arabic. He went on to study literature in Russia, after which he moved to Poland, and then finally to Switzerland in 1994." 
He has won several awards, among them the Swiss State Award (1995) for this book,  the Japanese Translation Committee Award for his Gold Dust (1997), and in 2010, the Arab Novel Award. His novel New Waw won him a place on the shortlist for the National Translation Award in 2015, the same year he found himself as a finalist for the Man International Booker Prize.

In general, as noted by Ursula Lindsey  at The Nation, al-Koni's entire "oeuvre"
"charts the disintegration of the country's nomadic, tribal and mythic culture under the impact of foreign intrusions and then of oil wealth."
Interlink Books, 2013
translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley
136 pp

"Only through dust will the son of Adam be filled." 

Set in Libya, Asouf grew up living with his family "alone in the desert, alone in all their movements and wanderings." He can't even remember a time when he lived around "human neighbors," and even as a child when another family came to settle close to where Asouf's family, his father decided it was time to move on. He often said that  he'd "rather have jinn as neighbors than people," and that all he wants is peace.  As Asouf was growing up, he'd learned how to hunt, how to break wild camels, and how to hunt the waddan (the moufflon referred to on the cover).  As an adult, Asouf continues to live alone in the desert, still shunning most human interaction, even though he has been given a job by the Italian government  as a tour guide and "guardian of the Wadi Matkhandoush." His task is to escort people who come to view the sacred stones and ancient paintings in the rocks.  However, when two hunters arrive demanding that Asouf take them to find the waddan,  he does all he can to protect these creatures that his father had told him were "possessed by the spirit of the mountains."  But more importantly, his resistance to the hunters comes after his "transformation" following a life-changing event in which he  sees his father's eyes in one of these waddan, leading him to realize that "He, his father, and the mighty were one now. Nothing could separate them."

The Bleeding of the Stone pulls in the reader not just because of  the story, but also because of the lovely blending of mysticism, Sufism, Islam, the Old Testament, and traditional beliefs.  Additionally, some of its chapters have epigraphs from such thinkers as Herodotus, Sophocles, and Ovid that set the stage for what's to come within.   Sofia Samatar, writing for The Interstitial Arts Foundation explains that the book can be read as an "ecological parable and also a portrait of the desert as a rich and vital center,"  but it is also a story that pits the traditional world against the worst of  modern intrusions, and a novel that speaks to resistance. Finally, it is just flat out beautiful in terms of the writing. I really wish I could give this novel the treatment it deserves, but I'd be here a long time so check out the links at the end of this post.

 The Bleeding of the Stone is not going to be for everyone -- it's a very out-of-the-box kind of read that absolutely demands reader participation and lots of think time,  but it is an incredibly powerful novel that I can most heartily recommend.

a couple of things:
1. an interview with the author
2. one of the best articles I've found on this novel by Sofia Samatar -- at 

 fiction from Libya 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O'Brien

Little, Brown and Company, 2015
299 pp

"Come away, O human child
To the waters and the wild,
With a faery, hand in hand, 
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand."  
                                                                              -- 152

In 1999 while a full-scale manhunt was on for Radovan Karadžić, aka "the Beast of Bosnia," who was just last year convicted of "genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity" by a UN tribunal, Karadžić managed to escape into Serbia.  In 2005, as Julian Borger reports in The Guardian
"a self-styled spiritual healer and clairvoyant, Mina Minic, answered a ring on his doorbell in Belgrade to find himself face-to-face with a tall man with a long bushy beard, abundant white hair done up in a top-knot tied with a black ribbon. He looked 'like a monk who had done something wrong with a nun,' Minic would recall later." 
This "tall man with a long bushy beard" was none other than Karadžić himself, 
"trying out a new identity provided by sympathisers in Serbian intelligence. He introduced himself as Dragan Dabic, a therapist who had just returned home from a stint in New York following an ugly split with his wife."
He was arrested in Belgrade in July, 2008, but only after
"working for years in a clinic...practicing alternative medicine. He even lectured on videotape at local community centers, in an open and active life..." 
The Little Red Chairs moves the scene from Belgrade to the small Irish town of Cloonoila, where one winter night, Dr. Vladimir Dragan arrives and proceeds to take up work as a holistic healer and sex therapist. People would later remember some bizarre occurrences on that night -- "dogs barking crazily, as if there was thunder, and the sound of the nightingale." At first
"There were those who smelt vice and corruption, while a few lone voices were insisting that he might be an artery for good."
The local schoolmaster responds by relating the story of Rasputin,
"...who hailed from the wilds of Siberia and infiltrated himself into the very nucleus of the Russian court, presenting himself a a visionary and a healer. He was going to lift Russia from its lethargy, and darkness, he was going to cure the sick child of the Czarina, the future heir, of his haemophilia and he was going to perform miracles ad infinitum. Did he cure the heir? No. Did he save the Russian family from the firing squad? No. He was a fornicator and had carnal knowledge of most of the women in the court."
His last words on the topic were a warning that "Rasputin's last supper was a plate of biscuits laced with cyanide." His little speech gave me a jolt -- not knowing anything about this story prior to reading it, the mention of Rasputin and how he had "infiltrated himself into the very nucleus of the Russian court," gave me my first clue that something just may not be right here, that what's on the surface isn't the real story.    On the other hand, throughout the town the thought also floated that perhaps the newcomer would "bring a bit of Romance into our lives."  Eventually the town gets used to him, incorporating their new healer into their lives and activities. Over the space of  the first few chapters O'Brien captures individual thoughts and reactions among the people living there, among them Fidelma McBride.

Fidelma is forty to her husband Jack's sixties, and as we meet her, we find out that the age difference "had begun to matter."  Jack, the local draper, prefers "keeping her to himself, shutting the world out, drawing the heavy velvet curtains too early on a bright evening."  She, however, of the "Gioconda smile,"  is "in her element" among the "warmth and the banter" of others, but most of all, Fidelma is desperate for a child, having lost two during her marriage.  She above all others is drawn to Dr. Vlad -- not necessarily a matter of love but rather centering on her desire to have a baby. The two begin an affair, which leads to serious implications down the road, especially when Dr. Dragan's past catches up with him.  The revelations about his history have a life-changing impact on this woman's life, who eventually makes her way to London after an horrific incident, where she meets other refugees from different parts of the world who have also had to flee their homes, who have suffered as Fidelma states, "fates much harder than mine, excruciating."

O'Brien's introduction of these people into this book as they relate their own stories offers a glimpse of the sorts of horrific realities that would cause people to flee their homelands and just what sort of realities exist for modern refugees trying to make a new life for themselves. This displacement, and the loss of home is a huge theme that carries throughout the story, and not just in Fidelma's situation.  Fidelma carries the added burden of guilt based on what she feels is her complicity, another thematic element that crops up throughout this book. Why, for example, are people so drawn to these self-deluded, "false prophets" who have appeared throughout history and will continue to do so to such horrific ends? It's a good question, and one that people should be considering, especially now.  There is much more, of course, and I'm only scratching the surface here, but it  is a novel very much worth reading.

  The title of O'Brien's novel reflects the line of 11,541 small red chairs laid out on Titova Street in Sarajevo, April 6, 2012  "on the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian War."

from The Atlantic, April 13, 2012
In July of 2016 an interview with Edna O'Brien appeared at Faber & Faber's blog where she notes that these "little chairs" are the "emblematic coffins, so to speak, of infants and children who had lost their lives."  She also notes that
"We cannot ignore or avoid what is happening in the world, it is presented on our screens every single moment. It must by necessity come into the work, because we are all witnesses to what is happening. To write about it is not to ease one’s conscience or exalt one’s status. It is simply to be one of the witnesses along the way."
I'm thinking that on a personal level,  the message of standing as witnesses and not looking away just may be the most important one of all in this novel. 

I'm also looking at readers' takes on this book and several people have had a less-than-sterling response to it, largely because it doesn't seem to be the work of the same Edna O'Brien as in her other novels (to which I can't respond because this is my first by her).   I'll agree that in some spots things seemed a bit contrived, and there's a sort of clunky, disjointed feel here and there in terms of structure, but overall, I was completely engrossed in this book which asks some very difficult but pertinent and timely questions. Recommended. 

real reviews: 
James Wood at  The New Yorker
Joyce Carol Oates at The New York Times
Ron Charles at The Washington Post

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Alpine Ballad by Vasil Bykau

Glagoslav Publications, 2016
translated by Mikaili Khilo
200 pp

paperback, my copy from the publisher. My thanks, along with sincere apologies for not getting to it sooner.


There is something very special about this particular edition of this novel, as noted on the back cover blurb, it is
"An altruistic, philanthropic project of Glasgoslav Publications, Alpine Ballad" is coming out as a gesture of peace and a reminder to all of the human cost of wars that ransack our planet to this day."  
Certainly can't argue with that. Extra cheers to Glagoslav, because the other thing that makes this edition so special is that this translation is the first not to have been based on versions censored by the Soviets.

I had no idea before reading this novel who this author was. It's an embarrassing thing to admit, but, well, there it is. There is a very nice introduction to Bykau in the intro section of this book, and as I was looking up more biographical info about Bykau, I stumbled onto a blurb for his  biographyVasil Bykau His Life and Works by Zina J.Gimpelevich.  It says that
"The Soviet Union banned many of Vasil Bykau's novels, which often focus on the agonizing moral dilemmas faced by young officers during the horrors of war. Considered the best modern Belarusan writer and the last Eastern European literary dissident, Bykau (1924-2003) is referred to as "the conscience of a nation" for leading an intellectual crusade against Lukasenka's totalitarian regime. In exile from Belarus for several years, he was given refuge by Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize by Havel, Czeslaw Milsoz, and PEN."
I'll be reading his biography for sure in 2017.  For sure.  He knows his topic -- he served in the army during World War II and was wounded several times; when the war was over, he began to write.

Now on to the book.

Alpine Ballad is, on the face of it, a novel about the flight for freedom made by two prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp somewhere in the Austrian Alps after they'd managed to escape.  Four of Ivan Tsyareshka's fellow prisoners died after an unexploded  bomb goes off, leaving a nearly-impenetrable cloud of dust and a lot of chaos. Ivan takes off, knowing that there's no way the others survived although he understands that it was only due to their deaths that he now has a chance at freedom.  Alsatian dogs and soldiers are sent after him, but he's not going to give up, and eventually clears the camp area, heading toward the Alps with the plan to make it to Trieste, where he hopes to hook up with partisans.  It isn't long, though, until he encounters another escapee,  Giulia, who is in the camp as a political prisoner marked by a red triangle on her clothing.  The novel follows their journey and their hopes as they take uncertain steps toward freedom.

Now, I say "on the face of it," because there's way more than just a simple escape going on here.  Earlier I mentioned that this novel's publication is a "reminder to all of the human costs of wars," a theme that just permeates this book.  One major idea captured here  is what Bykau refers to as "Entmenschung," referring to the dehumanizing practices of the Nazis, which he says is "the most dastardly of all evil deeds on earth."  We see this idea at work throughout the novel, and it especially comes into play here as Ivan more than once has to make decisions that will require strength of spirit and an examination of his own humanity.  Ivan totally understands this concept -- as we're told, once he was put into the camps and had the opportunity to observe what was going with "the underside of Nazism," he comes to realize that "death was not the worst thing that could happen during the war."

How these ideas play out through the novel I will leave to others to discover.  The story gives Ivan a chance for reflection in the form of flashbacks, which not only help us to understand who he is as a person, but which also offers a look at life in the USSR in the 1930s, most especially the famines that killed so many people in the Ukraine.  While the journey embarked on by Giulia and Ivan is just downright brutal in so many places, this is not, as I said earlier, just another novel about an escape -- reading it that way sort of lessens the impact and importance of what the author has to say here.

another one I recommend. Serious food for thought in this novel.

fiction from Belarus

Sunday, December 11, 2016

a real-world book group read: Em and the Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

Aleph Books, 2012
235 pp

"What is a cure when you're dealing with the human mind? What is normal?"

I picked up my phone on Friday morning and my friend and fellow book-group member says to me, "you really put your balls out there with this book," and I suddenly had a panic moment since I hadn't even started it and we meet on Tuesday.  Yikes. After explaining to her that I hadn't even opened it and after some more chatty conversation about the novel,  I figured I'd best be hustling my bustle and get reading. After all, it was my choice for December's group read so I should know something about it, right?    Note the 2012 copyright date -- this book's been sitting on my shelves since it was longlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which is why I bought it in the first place. It didn't win, but it did win the 2012 Hindu Literary Prize.   Oh my god -- 2013 was such a good year for reading, with some excellent novels like Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon (a lovely book that no one should miss), River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, book two of his incredible Ibis trilogy (my favorite historical fiction series ever), and Jeet Thayer's Narcopolis (that year's winner)  to mention only a few.  [As a side note, 2014's winner, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, by Cyrus Mistry, is another no-miss novel that I can highly recommend. Memo to self - put that one on next year's group read list.]  Anyway, I started Em and the Big Hoom after that phone call, took a break around 6:30 to go out for Thai and then finished it Saturday morning. 

The first thing I'll say is that it was difficult to keep myself grounded in the idea that this was fiction since it reads so much like a memoir.  One reviewer's overall opinion: "often wonderful writing, but feels too anchored in the auto/biographical" which I assume is a negative here, but I thought otherwise. To create a fiction that reads like reality is to me a mark of a good author; if it is based in reality, well, to put forth one's very soul  cloaked in fiction is a gutsy, bold move, but to each his/her own, of course.  The Em of the title is the narrator's mother, Imelda, who is married to Augustine, aka the Big Hoom.  The story is told via the son, the younger of two children born into this family (the other is daughter Susan), who as he says, wants to "try and understand her," to 
"try and figure out how this happened to my mother, once a beautiful woman with a lovely singing voice, and -- yes -- how this happened to my father, a man with a future who had given it all up to make sure the present was manageable. For her. For us."
Our first clue that something is not quite right is that the novel opens in "Ward 33 (Psychiatric) Sir J.J. Hospital."  The serious bipolar depression that keeps landing her there after several suicide attempts is the "this" that the son is trying to understand, but the novel is so much more than a young man trying to understand his mother's mental illness, which is difficult in and of itself.  At one point Em notes that "Nobody knows what I am going through," and her son agrees:
"Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again. At times, when I was young, I wanted to be inside the tower so I could understand what it was like. But I knew, even then, that I did not want to be a permanent resident of the tower. I wanted to visit and even visiting meant nothing because you could always leave. You're a tourist; she's a resident."
But his real aim is to get underneath her condition, to recover the woman herself, doing so via her stories, her many writings, and what she says when she's speaking in a free-association sort of way, although this isn't always easy, as he notes, since
"Conversations with Em could be like wandering in a town you had never seen before, where every path you took might change course midway and take you with it. You had to keep finding your way back to the main street in order to get anywhere."
One way to approach this novel is as a sort of testimony to Em, but at the same time, it's the Big Hoom who also gets much credit, for being the glue that holds the family together as they undergo crisis after crisis. And then, of course, the son, who just dreads that he may be watching his own future play out in what's happening to Em.  The thing about this book is that there is so much at work here that my short little post can't possibly do it the justice it deserves; there are so many layers to uncover and so many relevant topics that crop up throughout the story that it is again one of those books that a person needs to discover on his/her own.

It's a lovely novel, poignant, sad, filled with despair, but sometimes funny in a darkly humorous sort of way, and frankly, sometimes it's just flat-out, absolutely frightening.  And now that I've written that sentence, it seems to me that my reaction to this book must mirror a range of emotions that caretakers or family members of those suffering the same "madness" as Em does here must also experience, so to me the "auto/biographical" feel becomes even more real.  It's a good writer, I say, who can bring those feelings out onto the page where they then transfer into my head and live there for the duration.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I'm just sad that it's taken me three years to get to it.

other reviews worth noting:

The Guardian
The Complete Review
The Toronto Star

I would skip the Kirkus review, because once again, it's written by someone who did not thoroughly read the novel, as is made obvious in the statement that says "the father, unaccountably, is the Big Hoom."  Well, Kirkus reviewer person, had you actually paid attention, on page 7 the author spells it out for you how that nickname may have come about.