Friday, September 30, 2016

September books, digested

So many books, so little time to talk about them.  Whirlwind trip through this month's books:

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang:  damn, I loved this book!  More to follow on this one, but it will definitely be on my 2016 favorites list

The Honeymoon, by Dinitia Smith:  September's real-world book group read. Sorry, but I wasn't over the moon about this book -- to me it just flat-out  lacked depth. My book group was split on this one, but we did have a great discussion about George Eliot.

The Book Collector, by Alice Thompson -- from Salt Publishing; I liked it much better after the second read. Haven't posted about this one, but definitely recommended. Reminds me so much of Angela Carter's story "The Bloody Chamber," and "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.


dark fiction/horror/weird fiction and everything else that falls in this category:

The Dark Domain, by Stefan Grabinski : more to follow about this one after I read his The Motion Demon, but I loved it.

Strange Medicine, by Mike Russell : I love Mike Russell's work. He's just so out there it's an actual pleasure to lose myself in his stories.

Eltonsbrody, by Edgar Mittelholzer -- Barbados, a creepy old house on a cliff and lots of chills -- what more can you ask for? By one of my favorite Caribbean novelists

All Souls' Night: Stories by Hugh Walpole:  Collection of supernatural/other stories by Hugh Walpole, released by Valancourt Books.  Fun.

Night-Pieces, by Thomas Burke. Another Valancourt edition; lots of good stuff.


crime fiction
The Investigator, by Margarita Khemlin:  shortlisted for the 2013 Russian Booker Prize -- intense mystery at its core; one of the most literary crime novels I've ever encountered. Great read.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara - a true conundrum of a mystery and another good book from Pushkin Vertigo.


Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, by Patrick Phillips: reveals "the process by which racial injustice is perpetuated" in the US -- a must read

News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: -- after season two of Narcos, I had to know what was really going on in Colombia at the time -- another fine book that kept me on the edge of my seat.

and now, for October...

Aside from a few must-reads, October is dedicated to creepy books just perfect for Halloween,  so most of the action will be taking place over at oddly weird fiction.  Pop on in!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hystopia, by David Means

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
336 pp


"Accuse history of bending the kid. And the war, the war bent him, too."

There is this wonderful scene on page 154 of this novel, which is actually a book within a book, where one of the characters has a vision where she hears a dead boyfriend saying the following:
" I wonder who's going to tell the story, Meg? Nothing else to say. You see, you had to be here and you weren't. You know the one that goes: How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a lightbulb? How many? You fucking don't know because you weren't there, man."
And therein lies the irony of this novel -- in Hystopia, thanks to an initiative put into practice by the third Kennedy administration to help wipe out the traumatic memories of Vietnam vets, those who were there don't remember much more than those who'd never set foot in Vietnam.

If you read this book carefully, Hystopia reveals the inner turmoil of a very young man, Eugene Allen, who has recently returned from Vietnam at the time of the novel's writing. According to one of  the people interviewed at the end of the book-within-a-book, "He went over and served and came back and started right to work on his book," his "typewriter going day and night."  Allen, who is trying to cope with both the trauma of the war and his own personal pain originating more close to home, has framed Hystopia as a rather surreal, dystopian novel in which the action takes place in an America where Kennedy has successfully dodged a number of assassination attempts and has made it to his third term in office.  Kennedy has created an agency called Psych Corps, which would "solve the problem of mental illness in general and the vast horde of returning vets in particular," and under the auspices of this group, the process of "enfolding" occurs.  Veterans have to relive/reenact the particular "causal events" of the experiences leading to their trauma, which, along with the drug Tripizoid, leads to a sort of amnesiac state -- while they know they were in the army and  that there was some causal event, these people only retain actual memories of things up to that point, and then of what happened afterward.  What's left if all goes well is their story, which is the final step in the cure.  But here's the catch: enfolding doesn't always work -- especially on vets who have been too psychologically damaged for treatment to do any good.  While some of these beyond-help vets  "roam at will in Michigan, evading the government and re-enacting atrocities on civilians,"  one of these failed enfolds, a fellow called Rake who "had very little to go back to" at the end of the war,  is "going around taking perfectly cured individuals and returning them to their traumatized states."  The Rake situation just can't be tolerated, so the Psych Corps gets involved in trying to stop him.

But of course, the story is not so simple as it seems to be on the surface. There is a LOT going on here that really captured my attention. For one thing,   in this book successfully-enfolded vets are meant to be sent back into action, implying that this government administration has no real interest in ending the war at all. Even worse, it can't or won't step up to the plate and admit its mistake in getting involved in Vietnam in the first place. There is a great little scene near the beginning of this  novel where one member of Psych Corps explains to another that
"...history misses the point. Take the Somme, for example. The Big Fuck-up. I mean it was called that when it was happening. You had something like sixty thousand lads -- and they were lads -- die in the first day of battle. That battle cut the world in two. It introduced pure irony into the world, but do historians mention it? Hell no. Are we willing to call Nam the Little Fuck-Up? Christ no. The president keeps her rolling and decides to make a repository for irony..."
To me, the novel reads like an examination into the role of history/memory both in terms of self and on a larger, national scale.  Historical amnesia, remaking/rewriting/bending history are all found here, as is the effect of "enfolding" on a personal level, since many of the characters in this book discover a need to "unfold" -- to regain and reach down into those memories before they can make any real internal progress.  The dilemma is that, as one character puts it, while "You feel good and clean with the trauma put away, but at the same time you want to know what really happened," which can often be destructive.  Obviously, there's much more here; I haven't even begun to scratch this novel's surface.  One more important thing that may help in trying to understand this book: in a 2010 article in Paris Review, Means notes that
 " If a story wants to be told and you don't tell it, you'd better stand back because something's going to explode."
which is most certainly the case and certainly appropriate in this book.

 Aside from some things that sort of bogged this book down and interrupted the reading flow, I couldn't stop thinking about this novel after finishing it, and I think a second reading is definitely in the cards. There are some incredible moments here, especially in a section of about 15 pages  (154-169) with some of the most powerful writing I've read in a very long time.  Hystopia may be framed as an alternative history, but I think there's a good reason for doing it this way.  And once again, I see I am swimming upstream of other readers in terms of really liking this book, but it is what it is. I would without hesitation recommend this novel -- it's certainly unlike anything I've read before. Well done.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Penguin, 2015
260 pp


"It was easy to hide behind the dull face I wore ...I thought I had everybody fooled." 

So what's up with this year's Booker Prize longlist?  Both Eileen and Menmuir's The Many (the two I've read so far) are really dark reads  peering into damaged psyches. I like this sort of thing, but had I known that my random choice of these two books one after the other would make for such disturbing reading, I probably would have read something lighter in between the two. Dark fiction appeals to me, but this pair of books together left me a bit gutted.

In John Banville's blurb from Penguin's website he notes that
"If Jim Thompson had married Patricia Highsmith – imagine that household – they might have conspired together to dream up something like Eileen."  
Thompson I'm not feeling so much, but there is something akin to Highsmith in here in the sense that Moshfegh has written a book that left me wanting to take short breaks from roaming around in her repulsive main character's head. This novel takes on a week in the life of Eileen Dunlop as recalled by an older self some fifty years later, looking back to her last days as "angry little Eileen" leading up to the moment when she makes an escape from strange "life of a nobody, a waif, invisible."  Keeping in mind that in this novel appearances can be somewhat deceiving and that there's much more going on than meets the eye, whether or not we should be cheering her on is a judgment call that can't really be made until the final page has been turned.

While I'm not going to go into plot so as not to spoil things, it's beyond appropriate that Eileen works in a "private juvenile facility for teenage boys," "for all intents and purposes -- a prison for children,"  since one of the main ideas in this book seems to be how people come to find themselves in his or her own form of imprisonment.  Eileen is stuck in her house taking care of her widowed dad, a stubborn ex-cop who is now drunk most of the time which Eileen prefers since she can "just hand him a bottle and leave the room" when he needs to be distracted or soothed.  When he asks her to buy him more booze, instead of arguing, she's glad to get out of the house to kill time.  She's stuck in a body she despises to the point of repulsion and self-loathing, she's stuck in the past, wearing her deceased mother's clothes. She's stuck in her "brutal cold town," just counting the days until she can make her escape, viewing life as "one long sentence of waiting out the clock."  But, as we learn, Eileen isn't the only one who is stuck or imprisoned.

 And Eileen has secrets that she shares with no one except us.  On the other hand, she's not the only one  -- most of the main characters in this novel have secrets that will slowly come tumbling out and trust me, they're pretty horrific. Thinking of the secrets people keep here reminds me of the author's focus on masks. Eileen wears her "death mask" at work, since she is "terribly sensitive and determined never to show it." She finds that in order to get through her work day, she has had to "steel herself from the reality of the place..." since she was surrounded by "misery and shame."  Her inspiration --  a book she'd discovered at a library that "showed casts of faces" of several notable historical figures.  Practicing regularly and "diligently" at a mirror, she worked toward achieving, as she notes, "an aura of benign resilience, such as I saw in those dead men's faces."  Again, though, she's not the only one, and it seems to me that the author spends a lot of time getting to the root of what's behind the masks these people wear.  There's much more of course, but it is definitely a book that needs to be experienced rather than simply talked about.

While the dustjacket blurb says that there's a "Hitchcockian twist" in this novel, I didn't feel that one either.  It's true that this "twist" is important to the overall story, but I kind of saw it coming so it wasn't as much of a "Hitchcockian" moment as I was led to believe by the blurb.  I don't really think that plot is really the main focus here; it's much more a book about people and damage and how they end up being the way they are.  Eileen turned out for me to be much less about reading a novel and became more of a foray into a seriously disturbed mind or two or three, and I liked it.  Creepy, yes. Repulsive and uncomfortable, at times.  Difficult subject matter, definitely. But how people end up where they are in their lives and why they do what they do absolutely fascinates me and it's all here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

Salt Publishing, 2016
141 pp


The Many is an example of why I am a champion of novels from smaller, independent publishers. I had noted this title while looking at Salt's webpage some time back, thinking it looked intriguing, and then it shows up on this year's Booker Prize longlist. Not that I plan to read every novel on that list, but this one had initially caught my eye because it seemed like the kind of dark, intense read that would appeal.  And as it turns out, my hunch was right.  Even though this novel has its naysayers, I liked it.

The truth is though, that it took me two readings before I felt like I was getting somewhere with this novel. To be really honest, while the story compelled me to keep turning pages the first time,  it wasn't until the ending when I did a double take and realized a) that all is not as it seems on the surface here and b) I absolutely needed to read it again.  The result was an even sadder and more disturbing story the second time through, and it was well worth the time I put into it, one that's still haunting me right now while I'm thinking about it. Very few books can really do that to me, and this is one of them.

Just a little re plot, but not much.  An old, abandoned house overlooks the sea, a house that has stood empty for years.  Now an "incomer" by the name of Timothy Bucchanan has come to occupy it, thinking to fix it up as a place for himself and his wife Lauren (who is not there with him at the time and who will come when the house is ready), but his arrival is not a particularly welcome one among the others who live in this small, isolated coastal village.  Most profoundly affected by Timothy's arrival is Ethan, who is the first to notice chimney smoke rising from the house.  It seems that the place formerly belonged to Perran, who died many years ago; the house has since remained just the way it was when Perran died, sort of frozen in time.  Ethan and the men in the village are fishermen, but their way of life has been seriously curtailed, with fishing limited to an area delineated by the coastline and a "line of stationary container ships," due to "a profusion of biological agents and contaminants" poisoning the waters. The damage to the environment yields damaged fish, and yet there's always someone there to pay for and to take away the catch.  As Timothy works to try to put the house into some sort of order, questions arise regarding the former occupant, about whom everyone seems reluctant to speak. The question is why, of course, and trying to uncover answers is part and parcel of this novel.

In trying to deal with the house (which is still known locally as "Perran's house"), Timothy has times when it seems he may have taken on a bigger job than he can actually handle.  On his first morning in the house, he "wanders from room to room," discovering "huge shadows of stains on the walls and ceilings." His first thought as he looks around for fuel for the fireplace  is that the "house is a mistake," and then while looking out the window, he
"draws his fingers the length of the window frame and feels flecks of paint peel off beneath his fingertips. There is a thin line or crack, barely perceptible, that runs up through the window and he adds it to his mental list of things he needs to fix." 
The second time through, taking things much slower this time, it was here that my thinking skills  started kicking in, drawing me toward the ideas of deterioration and damage that seem to be common threads in this book.  Of course, what I read into it may not be at all what the author intended, but well, considering how very enigmatic this book is, my interpretation is probably just one among many.

 The Many is definitely a cryptic novel which can be extremely frustrating, and given its size,  it probably shouldn't take two readings for most people.  In my case, the second read helped a lot, since there is not much that is said here by way of explanation, and there is much that a reader has to pick up through an examination of dreams and flashbacks and through drawing parallels.  I often felt like the characters in this book -- "hemmed in", since there's a tense, claustrophobic feel to this story.  It also had the effect of keeping me knocked off kilter the entire time.  In spite of the fact that it was so enigmatic (and really, some of it is just plain strange at times), I found it a dark, sad and eerie book that I won't be forgetting any time soon. That's a good thing.

Recommended for very patient readers.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz

Melville House Publishers, 2016
originally published 2013, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
217 pp


Frankly, this is one hell of a good book.

I can just picture someone somewhere reading the back-cover blurb of this book where it says "The Queue is a chilling debut that evokes Orwellian dystopia, Kafkaesque surrealism,..." and wondering why he/she should read it if it's done before.  Well, it's certainly true that there are a lot of books that focus on people faced with the absurdities of a totalitarian government, but in this book, what strikes me is how optimistic some people are in believing  that if they just wait long enough, the state will take care of their problems.  Never mind that the Gate, the bureaucracy that is the unseen "absolute authority" in this unnamed country,  is never actually open to the citizens -- although rumors abound as to when it might open, people have been waiting long enough for help that a huge queue has formed and continues to increase in size while nobody ever seems to move.  The Gate continues to issue laws dictating that people will need permission from the state for an ever-growing number of activities, some as absurd as can be, and as these laws and proclamations become ever more intrusive and ever more numerous, more people continue to find a place in the queue and to wait with some measure of hope for what they need. And it's in the queue, really, where life goes on -- there are rules to be followed, commerce taking place, religious activities and activism, protests going on and  information being disseminated -- so that at some point, the queue becomes a society in its own right.

The major thread running through this story gives us a peek at how this authoritarian system works.  Tarek is a doctor who desperately wants to remove a bullet from a young man named Yehya Gad el-Rab.  Yehya, who wasn't protesting at the time, had been shot during the "Disgraceful Events," a four-day long "street battle" put down by the Quell Force, a unit specifically created to deter riots of this sort, and he now has a bullet lodged in his pelvis.   Hampering Tarek's efforts is a recent proclamation from the Gate that says that it is a "criminal act" to extract a bullet "except when performed under official authorization issued by the Gate of the Northern Building." After all,
"bullets and projectiles may be the property of security units, and thus cannot be removed from the body without special authorization." 
So Tarek has to wait until Yehya receives that "special authorization" from the Gate. As the story progresses, the proclamations issued by the Gate in this case become increasingly absurd, for example, with the forbidding of x-rays, and most especially the denial that the government ever fired on the crowd.  New hurdles continue to crop up -- Tarek discovers that Yehya's medical records have been tampered with, and that the x-rays have disappeared altogether. Things take a more sinister, dark and downright frightening turn when in her desperate attempt to help save his life, Yehya's girlfriend decides to bypass the system. In the meantime, Tarek continues to agonize over what he should have done and didn't out of his fear of repercussions from the Gate.  And all the while, history is being rewritten or whitewashed, forcing many people to try to rationalize what they know versus what the Gate is telling them.

There are a number of other stories here in this novel,  and it hits on so many things thematically, but I'll leave those for others to discover.  And as I said, while there are certainly any number of books out there that explore this sort of thing, this one is certainly different than most others I've read.  Looking at what other people have to say, The Queue is garnering some excellent reader reviews, although one reader called it "decidedly dull," with an ending that isn't "conclusive."   I will say that this book is not an easy read in the sense that answers/explanations aren't handed to you on a plate, and that it does take a fair amount of patience to read, for which in my opinion, you'll be rewarded. At the same time, as I read it, images were just exploding in my head, which is a good thing and to me the sign of a well-written novel.  For me, it was a serious page turner, a book I didn't want to put down for any reason.

real reviews of this novel:
from NPR
Literature After the Arab Spring

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

Riverhead Books, 2002
511 pp


It's not often I read a 500-plus page novel and manage to finish it over the course of a weekend, but Fingersmith is just the sort of book that enables that to happen.  I picked it up late Friday night and suddenly it was Sunday afternoon and I'd turned the last page.  Then I ran upstairs and grabbed my dvd of the BBC adaptation, because I wasn't quite ready to call it a day with this story.

And what a story it is! I really can't go into much detail because this is such a twisty novel that to tell would be to spoil.  It's so twisty, in fact, that I got to the first major surprise and did a huge gasp nearly making me choke on the almonds I was eating at the time.  I remember at the time thinking "that's f***ing brilliant!" but as it turns out, there were more twists to come.  The plot is about as nefarious as it gets and quite frankly, while it's not my favorite Waters novel (that's a tie between Tipping the Velvet and The Little Stranger), it had this way of lifting me from where I was back into Victorian England and to shut out the rest of the modern world while taking me there.  Okay - that's majorly cliché, but well, it is what it is.

Dustjacket material:  Fingersmith begins in the locksmith's shop at Lant Street, "in the Borough, near to the Thames." It's a poor part of London populated by thieves.  As Sue Trinder says, "We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street," and Lant Street has been her entire world since she was a baby. She had been raised there  by a Mrs. Sucksby who was a "baby farmer," and Mrs. Sucksby was the only mother she'd ever known.  She is totally devoted to Mrs. Sucksby -- as Sue notes, "She had been paid to keep me a month; she kept me seventeen years. What's love, if that ain't?"  Sue is seventeen when one day a visitor, Dick Rivers aka "Gentleman" arrives at Lant Street with a proposition that will involve Sue in a big way.  It seems that Rivers has made the acquaintance of young and naive Maud Lilly who lives in the country with her uncle, for whom Rivers is doing a bit of a work on the uncle's collection of books. Rivers has learned that Maud stands to inherit a huge fortune when she marries.  The plan is for Sue to go to Maud as her personal maid, gain Maud's trust, and to help convince Maud to marry Rivers.  He will then get rid of Maud by stashing her safely into an insane asylum, and once Rivers has control of Maud's fortune, Sue gets a big chunk of the cash for her troubles. Sue, who's never been away from Mrs. Sucksby, isn't sure, but since the money will be a good way for her to repay Mrs. S's kindness, she decides she'll do it.

That's absolutely all I'll say about the plot because the joy of this novel is in the many twists and turns this story takes once Sue arrives at the Lilly home to help set Rivers' plan in motion.  It is an absolutely, beyond-delightful novel that as I said earlier, totally engulfed me from the beginning.  Yes, there is a ton of detail here, some of which could have been left out or pared down and yes, some of the material verges on Victorian-novel cliché, but in this case, I was too deeply wrapped up in the story itself to care, reflecting back on these issues only afterwards.  It's a page-turning novel done in Victorian style  (Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Dickens all came to mind immediately), and while the plot is so twisted, it's really the people here that are the main focus. And oh my gosh - Sarah Waters can write people so very well.  She can also channel Dickens very nicely in her descriptions of London streets and slums, making it no wonder to me at all that Fingersmith was nominated for the Booker Prize in its day -- seriously, I would have voted for it had I been a judge that year.

Lovely book -- my advice: forget anything critical, go into it just for the story, have fun with it, and stay away from any spoilers.  Readers like myself who are very much into older works will love it for the atmosphere; readers like myself who love Sarah Waters' novels will definitely want to read  it for her ability to lift you out of where you are while reading it. It took me long enough, but I'm so happy I finally decided to take it off my shelves and  read it!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

from the Caribbean: Shadows Move Among Them, by Edgar Mittleholzer

Peepal Tree Press, 2010
originally published 1951
350 pp


"Berkelhoost teems with passionate, residual spirits."  

Having recently discovered Mittelholzer's work (in My Bones and My Flute), I couldn't wait to revisit him again.  Luckily, Peepal Tree Press has published a few of his books, including this one.  The blurb for Shadows Move Among Them says that while reading this book it is "impossible" not to make comparisons to "the fate of the People's Temple commune at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978."  I can sort of see it -- you have in this novel the establishment of  a "utopian" community of Berkelhoost where people are free to express themselves in many different ways, but it's a place where the emphasis on "discipline" comes before everything else.  It's a good book with a story that takes time to develop but once you're in, you're hooked.

Set on the banks of the Berbice River back when this country was still known as British Guiana, the leader of this community, Reverend Harmston, has developed a  philosophy centering on taking life with "a pinch of salt," without having to "nail ourselves down to any set philosophy or flat conventions."  Newcomer Gregory Hawke, the nephew of Mrs. Harmston, has come to Berkelhoost seeking a rest -- he's burned out by the war, he may or may not have killed his wife, and he's looking to heal his nerves and seek peace in nature. When he gets there, Harmston's precocious daughter Olivia realizes that the real Gregory hasn't yet appeared, that it's "only his shadow" that is with them.  As Gregory becomes more familiar with the family and the way of life at Berkelhoost, he finds himself having to take stock of the meaning of "civilization" (the world he's just left) and "barbarism" as he's confronted with an entirely new set of values here, constructed in such a way as to be a sort of antidote to the problems of the outside world.  There's much more of course -- sex, nature, religion,  and of course, Guyanese history all have major roles  in this novel.

There's a lot of subtle humor in this novel, as well as a growing awareness that even in this utopian oasis,  all may not be as bright as it seems.  Berkelhoost is a not only a place of phantoms and shadows, but it is also a place where contradictions abound.  I found it to be an incredibly thought-provoking novel once I started noticing said contradictions and to me this was the big payoff here.

Shadows Move Among Them may not be everyone's cup of tea, but so far, I haven't been disappointed with either of the Mittelholzer novels I've read and there are more winging their way to my house as we speak.  I appreciate Peepal Tree Press taking the time to publish his work; there are still some books that haven't yet been brought back into print, but I'm hoping the Peepal folks will consider doing so. His books are definitely worth reading.