Friday, January 26, 2018

Smile, by Roddy Doyle -- one of the most ironic titles ever

Viking, 2017
214 pp


If there was one word to describe how I felt after finishing this novel, I think I would have to say  "shocked."  I just sat here thinking about the last page, and continued to think about it for hours.   It really is the kind of ending that will stay with you for a long, long time; you might also want to consider following it with something light, if just for your own sanity. 

Smile begins with the return of Victor Forde to his hometown decades after he'd left it. He's just moved into a new apartment, is very lonely, and he decides that maybe he'll scout out a new local.  Sitting in the pub looking at his iPad, his quiet time is interrupted by Eddie Fitzpatrick, who insists that they were schoolmates together back in the days when they attended the Christian Brothers School.  Victor can't place him, but Eddie continues talking and bringing up things that seem familiar to Victor.  Although Victor is quite lonely at this stage of his life,  he has no desire to be friendly toward Fitzpatrick, taking an instant loathing to him and hoping he'll never see him again.  Alas. That is not to be. 

The thing is though, that those few moments spent in Donnelly's in Fitzpatrick's company prompt Victor to start spinning through his memories of his school years; as  he starts to relive those days,  certain things start to come back to him that take us back into his childhood in a working-class home, moving forward through his adolescence, his exit from the old neighborhood, and on into his adult life where he meets and falls in love with Rachel and begins to enjoy a fleeting sort of fame.   We also learn that Victor is a failed writer who had wanted to write a book about Ireland's history; he has all the best intentions, taps out a few pages here and there, but he just can't quite get it together enough to actually produce anything.   Interspersed with his past is his present, in which Fitzpatrick and Victor continue to bump into each other at the pub, and as their relationship begins to unfold, we watch as things begin to take a strange, dark turn with these two men.  

It's so difficult to discuss the book in any sort of depth because I don't want to give away anything at all that would ruin things for potential readers. Anything I say past what I've already said here will do just that so let's leave it at this:  it is, as the cover blurb says,  a tale of memory and contending with the past, and I think I'll leave it there.  I would strongly advise not reading any reviews that give away the show; I noticed on Amazon that many readers went ahead and blew the ending for others in what they had to say so avoid reading those at all costs.  

For me, Smile was a brilliant novel; I have only read Doyle's Barrytown books (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van and The Guts) which I absolutely loved, but that leaves several other novels of his on my shelves remaining to be read.  Smile goes into deeper, darker territory than those four, although I have to admit that there were quite a few humorous moments here that actually made me laugh before the story began to take the turn toward the dark that culminates in those final, mind-shattering pages.

I can't recommend it highly enough.  Don't buzz through it, and don't be surprised if after the last page you want to immediately read it again.  It's just that kind of book.  

Thursday, December 28, 2017

bye-bye, 2017

In the midst of it all, it's reading that has kept me sane this year.  

The last days of this year are sneaking up on us, and I've already been thinking about what I'm going to read in 2018.  But before I get that far, it seems appropriate to acknowledge 2017, since it's been a hell of a reading year, in a good way, of course!  For nearly 365 days,  with some exceptions,  I pretty much went off the mainstream grid and started exploring older books, discovering forgotten authors along with their obscure titles, and generally had a right jolly old time looking back on the past, or I've focused on translated works that appealed to me.  Truth be told,   I actually came to a sort of crisis point this year -- after going through a few contemporary novels this year that made me want to send them flying across the room (I'm not naming names), and especially after two DNF novels that got raves from other readers even though the writing was so poor,   I started making choices based more on personal satisfaction rather than on what's new or on books that critics deemed as buzzworthy.   It's been a liberating experience.

So how the reading year shakes out comes next, with a grand total of 118 books.  How is that possible, one may wonder; the answer is that I don't sleep a lot, I only watch 2 to 3 hours of tv at night, and I would rather read than eat. And I'm a fast reader.

From this page of my reading journal (contemporary, translated, and other literature) I have 23 under the label of 2017; I'll wait for January to discuss the books I've read but haven't yet posted about, but these two bring the total up to 25:
  • Raise the Red Lantern by Su Tong 
  • Malacqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event , by Nicola Pugliese 
Beyond praiseworthy in this category:  The Beguiled, by Thomas Cullinan, Huck Out West, by Robert Coover, Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry.  The last three: contemporary yes, but beyond outstanding, by writers who know their craft well. 

from The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

from the crime page
 I believe I got the most joy from  reading in this genre in 2017, mainly because I did a quick look over the year at the history of crime fiction/mystery fiction.  Using different reference sources, along with input from reading friends, I had the time of my life stepping into the wayback machine to find a number of different early examples of the genre. I'd planned to take this year through the onset of World War I, but there were too many good books from the 1860s and I got sidetracked and only made it to the publication in 1887 of A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel.  Combined with more modern novels,  there are whopping 49 that I've posted about with two others sitting here just finished, bringing that total to 51:
  • The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume 
  • A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan-Doyle
I also managed to prevent myself from being a one-trick pony in this genre with a few newer novels, but it was definitely books like Devlin the Barber, by Benjamin L. Farjeon,  The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins, The Mystery of the Sintra Road, by Jose Maria Eça de Queiróz and Ramalho Ortigão, The Leavenworth Case, by Anna Katherine Green, and Ellen Davitt's Force and Fraud: A Tale of the Bush that kept me the most entertained.  I'll be picking up my project again in 2018, starting in the 1890s.  

the as yet unread Valancourt Books shelf of dark fiction/horror/pulp/gothic novels

from the dark fiction page
Oh, people ... this year I discovered French dark literature from the Romantics to the Symbolists to the Decadents.  Oh my -- pure reading pleasure!   I also picked up decadent titles from Germany and they make the French look tame.  There are 32 posts on that page for 2017 but I have yet to discuss 
  • The Scaffold and Other Cruel Tales, by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam
  • Devil's Day, by Andrew Michael Hurley
bringing the total to 34.  I also indulged in quite a lot of old pulpy goodness this year, as well as older, lesser-known ghost stories, and a cult novel or two, including the excellent Twenty Days of Turin, by Giorgio de Maria, which after thinking about it for some time, chilled me to the bones albeit not in a horror-story sort of way. In the horror zone, Adam Nevill's Hasty for the Dark just plain knocked my socks off with its excellence.    And then, of course, I have to give a huge amount of reading entertainment credit to Valancourt Books, who seem to publish what I want to read without fail.  The photo directly above is the books I've bought that they've published that I haven't yet read,  and here are the ones I've enjoyed so far (a few have been moved to other shelves like crime fiction and literature but you get the idea): 

And now to nonfiction, which adds a total of seven books for 2017.  The most well-loved of these books:
  • The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, by Marjorie Worthington, which  came to me by way of Spurl Editions, a small but very cool publisher.  
  • Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767,by Thorkild Hansen, NYRB.
  • Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Vols. I & II, by John Lloyd Stephens
  • Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Vols. I and II, by John Lloyd Stephens
  • Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood and the The Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya, by William Carlsen

Last but not least, I've started a new journal page, mostly for the Victorian reading I plan to do this year, but there will be other, older British books there as well by the time I'm finished.   That's got a total of 1 book for the year listed, a silly adventure by H. Rider Haggard called Mr. Meeson's Will.   

So that's it, happy new year, great reading to all in 2018, and wishes for inner peace and happiness.  

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Stones Cry Out, by Hikaru Okuizumi

Harvest/Harcourt, 1999
originally published as Ishi no Raireki, 1993
translated by James Westerhoven
138 pp


"They would all die in this dark cave. They were dead already." 

Another random choice and another winner -- my lucky streak continues.  I'm sure that one of these days I'll go to my shelves, pick a book completely arbitrarily and find one that not's so hot, but for now, the good luck continues.

The author of this book won Japan's prestigious Akutagwa Prize for this novel, and after reading it, I can see why.  Its short 138-page length might tempt people into thinking it's an easy, breezy read, but really, it is anything but.  In this short space, as the review blurb from The Detroit Free Press says, the author has managed to
 "create the most vivid of fictional realms, the inner world of an Everyman battered by the cruel and seemingly random hand of fate..." 
and has effectively "magnified" the horror of this "Everyman's" story in "the quietness of its telling."  If I could organize words around my thoughts like this reviewer, I would be saying the same thing.

The Stones Cry Out recounts the story of Tsuyoshi Manase, who, as we learn at the outset had become a "fanatic collector of stones."  Before realizing what would become his passion,  Manase had been a soldier during World War II, and had found himself wandering through the jungle before finding a remote cave in Northern Leyte.   When we first meet Manase, we are told that he remembers very little about his experiences in that cave or about how he came to find himself in a POW camp after having been captured.  After a year and a half Manase was repatriated and had started on the road to becoming a successful businessman, during which time his "recollections of war began to fade."   He began to view his war memories as a " brief glance into a dark hole through a window."  But what he does not forget  is a terrible fear of isolation, and more importantly,  the words once spoken by a lance corporal who had been in the cave with him, telling Manase that the "tiny pebble you pick up during a walk is a cross-section of a drama that began some five billion years ago." What stuck with Manase was what the lance corporal had said next:
"That little pebble is a condensed history of the universe that keeps the eternal cycle of matter locked in its ephemeral form." 
 It will be these words, which "lodged themselves in his heart," that will drive Manase to begin collecting stones.  As the years go by he marries, becomes very successful and has two sons; however, he finds himself becoming more isolated and more detached from his wife and children because of his passion for collecting. He also begins to find himself in situations that sort of trigger nightmares and memories and in this way, we learn little by little what actually happened to him in that cave.  When tragedy strikes his family, Manase will have to come to terms with the fact that not only does the darkness of his own personal trauma often return "like phantoms to the surface of his memory" but that it also has the potential to be passed on to take root in the physical  present, sort of infecting all of those around him in different ways.   Consider this idea in human terms and it makes for one hell of tragic story.

 Obviously I'm just sort of outlining basic plot here,  but what happens in The Stones Cry Out is best experienced rather than simply read about. This book moves well beyond simply plot to explore how memories of trauma are never really "frozen" or "locked," but rather like the crystals in the rocks that Manase studies so intently, seem to have  "an inner urge to grow," even though the "urge had been forcibly repressed by some sort of magic keeping them locked inside this narrow space."   The question is this: "if that spell was somehow broken, would not the minerals burst into movement?"  How that plays out I won't reveal, but if ever there was a book to read that highlights the human psychological costs of war, it's this one.

It's a sad but beautiful book and one I recommend.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hallucinating Foucault, by Patricia Duncker

Ecco, 1996
173 pp


I chose Hallucinating Foucault completely at random as part of an effort to read books that have been sitting on my shelves for years untouched, gathering dust and making me feel guilty for ignoring them.As it turns out,  I've picked a good one yet again.  To be honest, it's rare that I come across an author's first novel that is so polished that it's hard to believe it's a debut, but that is definitely the case here.  While not a huge fan of the ending which I found slightly overwrought, the rest of the book blew me out of the water, and these days, it takes a LOT for that to happen.

The unnamed narrator in this story is working on his doctorate at Cambridge, studying the life of French author Paul Michel, "the wild boy of his generation."  Along with his works, the narrator worked to "build" an image of his subject, a man who was, as he says "beautiful. And he was homosexual," a fact that he "insisted" on bringing up in all interviews he'd ever given. In one of these interviews, when asked which other writer "had influenced him the most," Michel had immediately answered Foucault.  There were, as we are told, several "uncanny links," between Paul Michel and Michel Foucault including the fact that they were  "both preoccupied with marginal, muted voices," and both were "captivated by the grotesque, the bizarre, the demonic."  Both also also "explored similar themes: death, sexuality, crime, madness..." (31).  While their styles were different, at the core of the works of both men (Foucault's philosophy and Paul Michel's fiction) stood "the revolutionary project of thinking differently."    All of this is background to the real story here, which begins with the narrator  falling for another student he calls only "The Germanist," a young woman studying Schiller who, as our narrator discovers, also seems to have an interest in Paul Michel.  After a while she finds an article that reveals the current whereabouts of Paul Michel, currently within "the white prison walls of a psychiatric unit" in France.  The Germanist challenges our narrator to go to France to find Michel, and he goes to do just that. And this is the point at which where the story actually begins; as it progresses, we discover that Hallucinating Foucault starts becoming less of the quest tale I thought it was going to be and much more of a space for exploring relationships, the most important being that between a writer and his readers. At its heart lies a love story, and that's about all I'll give away here.

 It's all so very nicely done, and as I said earlier, I was floored when I discovered that Hallucinating Foucault was the author's first book.  And not to worry -- it's not necessary to be familiar with Foucault's work to read this book; Duncker does  a fine job of bringing out some of Foucault's main themes here (madness, sexuality, the nature of truth)  and they flow sort of effortlessly throughout the text.    I won't kid you -- it's a challenging read that requires thought, and it grows in intensity as we come down to the ending, but it is so worth it.  My advice: spend time savoring this one, although in my case, I never wanted to put it down once I'd started.  One more thing: this book is definitely not one for those who constantly swim in the mainstream.

If this is an example of the books I've been neglecting over the years, I can't wait to get to the others. Seriously, this one is off the charts good.

Monday, November 13, 2017

an October random read: Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

Penguin, 1977
originally published 1938
247 pp


"It's like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you'll still read Brighton. That's human nature." -- 198

Between the back-cover blurb of my old Penguin edition shown here that reads
"Pinkie, a boy gangster in the pre-war Brighton underworld, is a Catholic dedicated to evil and damnation. In a dark setting of double-crossing and razor slashes, his ambitions and hatreds are horribly fulfilled...until Ida determines to convict him of murder. But Pinkie, on the run from her pursuing fury, becomes even more dangerous..."
and the first line of the novel,
"Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him"
I was all set to dive in to what I fully expected to be a crime novel, but as things turned out, Brighton Rock became something entirely unexpected. To label this book as a "thriller" is to do it a grave injustice -- while there are certainly murders and other violent acts throughout the story, this book goes far beyond the reach of a crime novel and deep into complex existential and metaphysical zones.

As far as the crime aspect goes, in Greene's Brighton, violence is just an ordinary fact of life; here the focus is on the competition between gangs over who will end up with the greater part of the protection racket now that the gang boss Kite has been killed.  It's the death of Kite (from A Gun for Sale, which I haven't yet read) that leaves Fred Hale with a target on his back; evidently he'd sold out Kite to the rival gang headed by Colleoni, causing him to be murdered.  Now young Pinkie Brown, a sociopathic seventeen year old,  sets out to avenge Kite's death since 
"... when Kite had died in the waiting room at St. Pancras, it had been as if a father had died, leaving him an inheritance it was his duty never to leave for strange acres." (130)
By killing Hale and thus taking revenge for Kite's death, he sets out to prove himself to the older members of the gang, setting himself up as the new Kite ("He had inherited even the mannerisms, the bitten thumb nail, the soft drinks") ready to stand up to Colleoni and his gang.   Hale's death is put down to natural causes, so basically Pinkie and his gang have gotten away with it, but there is a big loose end that needs to be taken care of.  Hale had been in Brighton drumming up newspaper sales as Kolley Kibber (based on the real-life Lobby Lud), leaving cards all around town. After his death, Pinkie insisted that the cards be distributed so that it would look as though Hale/Kibber had been on his regular route, and at a cafe, one of Pinkie's men is noticed dropping off the card by Rose, a young waitress who could, if questioned,  easily testify that the man who left the card was not the dead man.  Pinkie decides to take care of the situation himself by courting Rose and getting her to tell him if anyone comes asking.  But Pinkie hasn't counted on Ida, a woman with whom a very frightened Fred had spent his last moments before disappearing and ending up dead.  Having read about his death, Ida is determined to find out what really happened to him, and refuses to quit until she has the answers she seeks.

Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown, 1947 -- from The New York Times

This beginning sets up what definitely sounds like a crime thriller, and in truth, considering what was going on in British crime fiction at the time, Brighton Rock was something entirely different in the genre.  However,  there is much more here than just crime.   What follows on the heels of that one loose end turns  into multiple problems (and creates other loose ends that must also be tied up) for Pinkie, whose own existential angst deepens and becomes more apparent,  more desperate as the story progresses.  If read solely as a crime novel, the reader misses out on the depth of the metaphysical dimension Greene has constructed, which I feel  is absolutely critical to understanding these three characters, Pinkie, Rose, and Ida, and their relation to the interplay of good and evil that dominates this book. Other thematic issues arise as well, including innocence, damnation and salvation, so thinking of this book merely as a crime thriller sort of undermines its deeper brilliance. And while  I can't really give Brighton Rock the justice it's due either, I will say that these characters haunted me for a very, very long time after finishing the book, making it one I will never, ever forget.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

You Should Have Left, by Daniel Kehlmann

Pantheon, 2017
originally published as Du hättest gehen sollen , 2016
translated by Ross Benjamin
111 p


Everywhere I turn when reading about this book I find comparisons to Stephen King's The Shining.  In one sense, I get it, because it is about a man who has taken his family off to a remote location to work on a screenplay and weird stuff starts happening around him.   In another sense, in my most humble of casual-reader opinions, to liken it to The Shining sort of cheapens this book in a big way. It also makes for a number of readers having dashed or unfulfilled expectations -- after all, if you're expecting something along the lines of a Stephen King horror novel and you don't quite get it, well, that makes for an unhappy reading experience.   On the other hand, I had zero expectations before reading this book and had quite a happy reading experience.  In fact, I was downright chilled to my bones before it was all over, and not because of any kind of supernatural element, but because of the psychological aspects of this book.

The entire book is a set of journal entries kept in a notebook, and right off the bat we learn that the narrator is "up here" with "new surroundings, new ideas," and "a new beginning."  We also learn that there had been "constant arguing" with his wife -- and that while it at least has stopped in relation to taking care of their daughter,  all is not quite right, since her bad driving caused him to say something, resulting in the two yelling at each other up the mountain road to their vacation home. He can't even work when his wife and daughter are in the room, but he pretends anyway, because he knows she'll just start complaining.  If she's not complaining about him not working, then she complains about him not spending enough time with them.  And as the arguments continue, we sort of get a picture of a not-so-blissful married life which evidently isn't being helped by the change in scene to this lovely home in the mountains of Germany.   Our nameless narrator is working on a screenplay for a sequel to a film which for which he'd also written the screenplay, and is evidently under quite a bit of pressure moneywise, what with the new town house they'd bought, carrying a mortgage which is "far from paid off."  And there's more -- he's also under pressure from the powers that be in charge of the film.  He's been told by the producer that if doesn't deliver, the production company, "which owns the rights," will have to find another writer if he doesn't deliver.   What he produces when he writes is crap, and he knows it. 

  It isn't long before he begins to have disturbing dreams, and then a trip for provisions to the small village at the foot of the mountain takes a somewhat ominous turn in a conversation about the house with the shopkeeper; it gets worse when a fellow customer tells him to "Get away quickly."  The remainder of the journal entries begins to reveal even more unsettling episodes he has in this isolated  house that will lead to some pretty bizarre behavior on the part of the narrator, especially after he makes a particularly disturbing discovery.

While reading this book, eventually I got to the point where I felt like I watching a series of nightmares unfold, but I had the even stronger feeling that I was caught inside of an MC Escher drawing.  It's a story where you really have to decide if what's going on here is due to any sort of supernatural influence or whether there's something else at play here.  I was sort of on the fence until I came across a particular journal entry on p. 89 that struck me and made me go back,  reread the book,  and re-evaluate what I thought might be happening here based on those few lines, and it all started with the discussion of a "creature drawn on paper" who "if it could live, would live entirely on paper, on its surface"  faced with "a mountain on the paper."  Think shifting of geographical contours on an existential level, and that's where this book took me, and it was downright unsettling.

You Should Have Left was billed somewhere as a haunted house novel (sorry, I can't remember where I'd read that), and that was the reason I picked it up. I discovered two things: one, it actually reminded more of the work of Oliver Onions, who wrote several tales that link creativity (or the lack of) with insanity, and two,  I was also reminded me somewhat of the style of the work of author Jac Jemc in her book The Grip  of It, read earlier this summer, where she used various tropes associated with haunted houses to get to the root of what was haunting her two characters.  And despite some low reader ratings, I thought You Should Have Left turned out to be original, definitely frightening, and frankly, up there with the most disturbing books I've read this year.   I don't know about anyone else, but reading a record of and therefore becoming a witness to someone's complete mental deterioration is far more frightening than anything a supernatural tale could possibly conjure up in my head.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Nona's Room, by Cristina Fernández Cubas

Peter Owen Publishers, 2017
originally published as La habitación de Nona, 2015
translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts
159 pp


"It’s as if she’s not seeing the same thing as everyone else”
                    --- "Interior With Figure" 

First, let me say thank you to the publishers who sent me this book, and especially to Maya, who had to put up with my loss of the e-copy she sent and then sent another one.   Actually, I lost it a second time because I forgot to save it before turning off my ipad, but as I was too humiliated to ask her for a third download, I bought a print copy. 

On now to Nona's Room, which is part of the "Spanish Spring" offerings of a collection called the Peter Owen World Series.  The blurb about these books reads as follows:
"Journey with us to explore outstanding contemporary literature translated into English for the first time. Read a single book in each season -- which will focus on a different country or region every time ...Read the world -- three books at a time ... 3 works of literature in 2 seasons each year from 1 country each season." 
I'm in, as it looks like this is going to be a great series; there is more info about these books here at Peter Owen's website.

Nona's Room puts together six short stories narrated by women, and it isn't long into the first story that I realized I had something unique in my hands.  The publisher's description of this collection labels these tales as "Gothic and uncanny stories," but I think a better way to describe them is to say that they're off-kilter, taking the reader right away into a strange sort of universe where he/she will have no idea what to expect at any moment.  That impression was cemented  in the first story, "Nona's Room," a tale of two sisters that is utterly mind blowing once the author turns a certain corner in the telling.  Then another surprise, with "Chatting With Old Ladies," which starts out with a woman trapped in a desperate situation who, as it turns out,  hasn't even begun to understand the meaning of either "trapped" or "desperate." This one reads like a mix of horror story and fairy tale, and I heard myself actually gasp at the ending of this one. By this time on  full alert, I moved on to what I consider to be the best story in this book, "Interior With Figure," in which a writer visiting an art museum stops to listen to a group of children giving their own interpretations of a particular painting, finding one little girl's thoughts beyond disturbing. However, it's this child, not the painting itself, that captures the writer's imagination...

by Adriano Cecioni, Interior With A Figure

"The End of Barbro" brings three sisters together to reflect on their past, while "A Fresh Start" finds a woman wanting to start all over discovering that "the present has slipped into her past;"  "A Few Days with the "Wahyes-Wahno" follows two children as they visit their aunt and uncle while their father is ill; the idyllic retreat will become something they will remember for the rest of their lives. "..a sad happiness or a happy sadness," only the reader can judge. 

The quotation with which I began this post really says it all -- "It’s as if she’s not seeing the same thing as everyone else," since it seems to me that Ms. Cubas has this rather eerie way of looking at things through a set of lenses that focus on the spaces between reflections and illusion, past and present; but most of all between borders and boundaries that we as readers don't get to see very often. It's not an easy read, and it does take a lot of active thought, but the patient reader will be highly rewarded.  And I have to say that as I turned the last page, I had to go sit and focus on more mundane things to shake off my sense of being left totally off balance.  When a book can provoke a reaction like that, it's one well worth reading. 

fiction from Spain