February 9, 2016 § 2 Comments
Atavisms, Quebec author Maxime Raymond Bock’s debut short-story collection, translated into English by Pablo Strauss and published in 2015 by Dalkey Archive, contains thirteen stories spanning time periods from Samuel de Champlain and the (most recent) white discovery of Canada to the present day. Many of them are first-person, with characters that look at the world in a slightly off-kilter way.
Both stylistically and content-wise, Bock’s writing reminds me to a certain extent of Samuel Archibald’s work. Archibald was recently shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, but Bock’s book–more explicitly and literary and meticulously concerned with the precise effect of the language–has not had the attention it deserves. Both writers are contemporary, immersed in a world of Anglophone literary fiction as well as the Quebec tradition, both write with a masculine edge softened by introspection and insight, both can turn their pen to a variety of genres—and both, intriguingly, have written a scene in which a young boy (who is nonetheless old enough to know better) brutally kills a small domestic animal.
The first story, “Wolverine,” starts off with a would-be writer—Poet—and his two friends, who are somewhat less intellectual, setting out for a night drive with a difference: there’s a cabinet minister imprisoned in the back seat, his hands duct-taped together. As they head for the forest, Poet thinks it an opportune moment to describe his novel-in-progress to his friends: “It was a love story. A couple of depressed, coca-chewing revolutionaries were getting ready to take over a coffee plantation that had somehow escaped the forest fires and the clear-cuts.” Tonight’s adventure illustrates the gap between what these boys are (immature mediocre wannabes who believe they’re superior to everyone else) and what they think they are (badass Quebec nationalists). Poet is quickly losing his alleged sensitivity as the night wears on, with ominous lines like “Turbide was stirring now, waking up to a nasty headache. His moans were wrecking the nice silence you look forward to when a tape ends” combining reason and rationality with threat. But Poet isn’t in charge, Jason is, and once they’ve tied up the old man, Jason starts punching him in the face, “[e]very blow accompanied by … the recitation of an entry in a somewhat random register of four hundred years of humiliation—the deportations, the British Conquest, the subsidies, the sham democracy.” After the beating, which the Poet thinks is sufficient payback for one night, Jason pours petrol over the man. The ending is not the anticipated foregone conclusion but leaves the characters and reader shaken just the same.
“Wolverine” isn’t the only story with a character poised on a precipice between a life of the mind and a life of brute force; what Bock does well—something that is often attempted by writers of more macho fiction without always fully coming off—is show that these two kinds of lives are not opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive. But Bock also shows characters from entirely different social situations. In “Raccoon” a very young couple with a newborn live isolated in their apartment. The first-person narrator is the “official ambassador to the outside world’; whenever he returns, he goes through an elaborate disinfection process to avoid bringing in C difficile. The narrator distrusts authority and believes in conspiracies, but feels safe behind the locked doors and windows of the apartment. They have “a good life[: …] TV, couch, fridge, bed, table.” They change cereal brands because of the brand eaten in the girlfriend’s favourite soap opera. When a nurse present at the birth tells them the baby has FAS (foetal alcohol syndrome), they misunderstand and make a joke about him being speedy. It would be easy—and satisfying—to write about these characters with a superior tone, but Bock doesn’t do this, instead giving them agency, the ability to be happy with what they have, and hopes, plans and good intentions. The result is something complex and thought-provoking.
There isn’t a single story in the collection that isn’t political in some way, most often dealing with Quebec nationalism or colonialism (hence, perhaps, the atavisms of the title). The politics is handled well—definitely not subtle, but also never intrusive or awkwardly stuck on. The last, and possibly best, story in the collection is “The Still Traveler,” an intriguing combination of indigenous issues, time travel and Inuit legends. The opening immediately calls Dorian Gray to mind as the narrator tells us that “Those who have seen me age so quickly suspect nothing. They think I have some rare disease, some form of adult progeria or congenital degeneration.” The narrator has inherited a semi-dilapidated house from his parents, and leaves his urban Montreal apartment for the country to slowly renovate it. While sorting through the collections of possessions, he finds a trunk that had belonged to his great-grandfather, who’d been a seaman and sailed the world. The contents of this trunk are not junk; in fact, it’s a collection of Inuit art that the narrator recognises needs to be professionally evaluated. Among the artefacts is a metal eye. While reading his grandfather’s diaries to trace the origins of this eye the narrator discovers that his grandfather was part of a smuggling ring, supplying these artefacts to private collectors. Whenever there was nothing left to barter, they stole what they needed. The narrator is too familiar with colonialism to be shocked by this discovery, but he was “still hurt to see my own great-grandfather caught up in such outrages, and now to find [him]self in possession of his ill-gotten booty.” As he packs away the artefacts in disappointment, he is transported, while holding the eye to a rock by the ocean, surrounded by fishermen. He learns that the eye will transport him to whatever place and time he thinks of. This sounds gimmicky, but the rest of the story is held together by Bock’s attention to the logistical minutiae of time travel as well as the story told by the places and times he visits.
Atavisms is a strong collection, and Pablo Strauss, one of the best new translators working in Canada at the moment, captures Bock’s rhythms and voice fantastically well in his English rendition.
Bock’s new novel, Des lames de pierre (Le Cheval d’août, 2015), moves in a slightly different direction. It’s a study of the lives of two poets, Robert Lacerte, born in 1941, and the unnamed first-person narrator, a contemporary Montreal writer. The two meet at an outdoor poetry reading a year and a half before the older man’s death, and the two stories of their lives pull together two separate threads of Quebec writing. Lacerte had a typical childhood, being sent away at fourteen to a lumber camp to work for the entire winter, but having the luck to meet a fellow teenage worker who introduced him to literature. The narrator is an urban poet attending readings, suffering from occasional city-ennui. The intertwining of the lives of these two men, juxtaposing their very different but equally of-their-time existential and material concerns, is skilfully done, leading to a moving ending. Read an extract in translation here.
Both Des lames de pierre and Bock’s novella, Rosemont de profil, about the perils of revisiting childhood friendships, share both Atavism’s strong voice and Bock’s care and attention to language that is always interesting and often exhilarating. This is a Quebec writer who deserves a wider audience.
January 18, 2016 § 7 Comments
There were a lot of 2015 books that I loved and really wanted to write about but just never managed it. And that’s ok, I’ve decided. There were books like Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (had no idea where to start talking about it even though it was one of my top books of the year), Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall (felt as though I needed more art-world expertise to comment knowledgeably), Ravenscrag by Alain Farah, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (needed to read it at least once more and preferably three times) and Anne Garréta’s fabulous Sphinx, which I still hope to write about in detail, so I won’t talk about it here.
So here are my thoughts–definitely not critical, definitely not reviews–of four books from 2015. Three are Canadian and one is German. The first one is Carellin Brooks’ One Hundred Days of Rain. I’m a huge fan of BookThug fiction. Both their English-language books and their translations are always interesting and provocative. Just last season we had Jess Taylor’s Pauls (from which a great story was printed in CNQ 93), The Plotline Bomber of Innisfree by Jason Massey, and Grand Menteur by Jean Marc Ah-Sen (my review of which will be published in February at Full Stop. And then there’s Jacob Wren, whose work I have inexplicably not read. But that will change in 2016, when he publishes Rich and Poor.
One Hundred Days of Rain is the moving story of a post-breakup life. The narrator and her young son keep plodding on, through Vancouver’s endless rain and grey clouds, through difficult times and distressing incidents. It’s a story told in long fragments, with the short and choppy sentences conveying the narrator’s frame of mind. The first new situation she encounters is being arrested after a fight with her partner, being photographed and fingerprinted and eventually being barred from their home and contacting her spouse.
This is a life that has come apart, and yet still demands certain routines of the narrator as she deals with the constant obstacles to rebuilding something resembling her old life. The skill of using the weather as a meditative device without resorting to pathetic fallacy is one of the book’s great achievements, along with its beautiful depiction of how interior and exterior bounce off each other. It makes me very keen to read Carellin Brook’s wonderfully titled Fresh Hell: Motherhood in Pieces.
One morning last summer I woke up in the middle of the night with the lights on and Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s The Devil You Know under the bedclothes. And a good job it was that I did fall asleep on page 10, or I’d have been up all night devouring it. Women should read it because it’s a shiveringly good portrayal of the little accommodations we make every single day, the unexpected noises we are aware of, the decisions we make based on what seems—and sometimes feels—like irrational instinct. (I know there are women who don’t feel like this, who feel that their lack of concern about walking home across a park at 3am makes them special is nothing special, so congratulations to them on having never once been scared by a man, never once having stopped breathing from terror of what might happen next.) And men should read it because it’s such a startlingly good account of what it’s like to feel that kind of jumpiness.
I’m not going to summarise the plot, but in brief, The Devil You Know is a mystery/thriller, but it wears its genre very lightly. I mean that in the sense of feeling as though resolution and answers wouldn’t even have been necessary, because both the writing and the characters were so powerful that the plot seemed almost unnecessary. It’s set against the backdrop of the horrific real-life Paul Bernardo serial-murder case of the late eighties and early nineties; if you’re not Canadian, start by reading this excellent memoir piece by Stacey May Fowles. I’m only a thriller reader occasionally, and often disappointed when I do pick up the year’s top picks, but The Devil You Know deserves to be as well known as Gone Girl (it’s also way better written).
The last of my Canadian choices is Alison Pick‘s wonderful memoir, Between Gods, about discovering her Jewish ancestry and the hidden stories of her family. This is a truly fascinating and moving book that dives into the debates about nature versus nurture or blood versus culture in very personal and sophisticated ways. Although Pick was never especially Christian in anything more than a cultural sense, she feels the pull towards Judaism. Her depictions of how her search for the right God, and what wanting a God even means, affect her life and her family are honest and compelling. One of my favourite non-fiction titles of 2015.
And finally, The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik (translator Katy Derbyshire). I loved this tiny volume from Readux Press (you might have been hearing good things about Joanna Walsh’s Grow a Pair, also published by Readux and on which I am keen to get my hands). This story features two real literary characters, Ivan Blatny and Nicholas Moore. The first half of the book tells their stories, in parallel and on facing pages, the correspondences of the language used for each character mimicking the correspondences and coincidences of their lives.
The Moore tale begins:
When the critic George Steiner looked through the entries for the Sunday Times Baudelaire translation competition he was judging in 1968, he was no doubt a little surprised. Someone had submitted more than thirty versions of the same poem.
And here’s Blatny’s opening:
When the journalist Jürgen Serke came across a slim man with a small cut on his freshly shaven cheek in St. Clements Hospital in Ipswich in 1981, he was no doubt a little surprised. The man had been declared dead more than thirty years previously.
The two men were both twentieth century poets who started off well before being forgotten through a combination of unfortunate personal circumstance and changing tastes. The second half of the book is made up of the correspondence between the two men, which began in 1962 when Blatny wrote to Moore, whom he did not know. The letters reveal how their lives progress, and their attitudes to the disappearance of their early promise and fame.
I’m rather fond of slightly experimental fiction about real characters (like Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters), particularly scientific or literary ones. It would be easy to look up how far this little volume was based on fact, but I prefer to enjoy the fiction and the not-knowing, particularly when it comes in such a formally innovative package. This book costs almost nothing; try to get hold of a copy if you can.
January 5, 2016 § Leave a comment
As 2015 is now over, I’ve been able to add up my reading numbers for the year. In total, I read 88 books. Of these, 19 were by non-white authors (a category that seems even more problematic after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates). Eight of these were in December; so eleven over the rest of the year. Not a great tally. For some sort of comparison, my #readwomen numbers were 44 women, 40 men. That’s a category I never pay attention to at the moment of reading since my numbers are almost always evenly split. Clearly Diverse December was something I needed to do. With the exception of Farzana Doctor (library copy), all these books were already on my shelves; I just needed a reason to move them right up to the top of the TBR. So thanks to Dan Lipscombe and Naomi Frisby for inspiring me.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This book sort of blew my mind. It was like being on the other side of one of those articles that say, Hey, men, just thought you might want to know that this is what it’s like being a woman Every Single Day. The articles that talk about minimising and brushing things off and being polite, and that open the eyes of even the most feminist of men. Reading this book is neither easy nor comfortable (and will send you off to find out about other things too) but it’s important. Structured as a letter to Coates’ fifteen-year-old son and containing all the history and street smarts he wants to be sure to pass on, Between the World and Me is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year, and its place on so many best-of-2015 lists is well justified.
All Inclusive by Farzana Doctor
This is Canadian writer Doctor’s third novel. She writes really well about families and relationships. All Inclusive is about Ameera, a travel rep working in Mexico who is getting into trouble for sleeping with the tourists–couples only. Her mother is white Canadian and her father—whom she never met—was from India, but died the day after her conception in the 1985 Air India bomb, something that neither Ameera nor her mother know when the novel opens. It’s a moving and well-plotted story, with lots of holiday sex (it sounds incongruous with the subject matter but it works). For another recent fictional take on the Air India disaster, read Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.
By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar)
This is the first book I’ve ever read from Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country. It’s the tale of a childhood spent on an isolated Atlantic island, a place where religion and superstition mingle with fascinating results. As devastating as Job’s tribulations and the plagues of Egypt combined, the island’s tragedies are brutal and relentless. Told in part like a folk tale and translated well by Jethro Soutar, By Night the Mountain Burns works towards a moving conclusion.
Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni
The second And Other Stories title on my Diverse December list, this is possibly the first book I’ve read set in the Philippines (a theme seems to be emerging…). Keni is a physician who was born in London to Indian parents, so the choice of the Philippines is intriguing. I didn’t know this until after I’d finished reading, but I did notice that the novel doesn’t fetishise poverty and rose-tint hardship in the way some novelists do when writing about their parents’ country of origin: perhaps writing about a different country altogether makes this easier. Joseph, the main character, is a young houseboy in the household of Mary Morelos, a widow whose left-wing convictions put her at odds with many of Esperanza Street’s richer inhabitants. When a local man wants to develop the street, destroying businesses and homes in the process, she comes into conflict with much of the neighbourhood. Esperanza Street is a well put together novel that combines socioeconomics, politics, family relationships and personal responsibility, and allows its characters to be both familiar and unfamiliar to western readers.
The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar
Sukkar was just twenty-one when she wrote this portrayal of an autistic boy as the Syrian war gathers pace around him and his family. You’ll have to forgive a slightly tedious oversignposting of autism in the early pages, but you really should forgive it because this book is quite devastating. It has had extremely little press attention, as evidenced by the fact that my own Three Rs interview with Sukkar is on the first page of Google results of a search for the author’s name. I believe it was the first novel about the conflict when it was published (Eyewear, 2014); it might well still be the only one. When most of the mentions we hear about Syrian people are to do with refugee camps and asylum seeking, it’s good to be reminded that there was a before—and also to see how quickly and violently a comfortable existence can be turned upside down.
The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King
A fantastic primer on Indigenous issues from one of North America’s great popular scholars. This should be required reading for all newcomers to Canada, all high-school students, and pretty much the entire adult population. King has a breezy, funny style that makes the difficult subject matter penetrable and comprehensible. He does not call the book a history, so let’s say that it’s an incredibly important back story that adds valuable context to our understanding of events from the beginnings of colonialism in North America to the position we find ourselves in today.
Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla
This was actually a reread; I read this book when it first came out and fully intended to review it here, but life got in the way. Nikesh Shukla is the writer whose comments about the lack of diversity in the books being given away for World Book Night prompted Dan Lipscombe and Naomi Frisby to set up Diverse December in the first place (and it has now become @readdiverse2016).
Meatspace is the story of the hilarious collision between our online worlds and meatspace (formerly known as IRL, or in real life). It’s not the decade-old story of whether we are giving up too much of reality by spending so much time immersed in supposedly virtual worlds, but an exploration of what our online personas mean, how important they are professionally and personally, and what happens when people and incidents that you hope are safely confined to one of the worlds come crashing into the other. It’s funny and moving and poignant, and has an impressively light touch with the many political and difficult personal themes it touches.
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (translated by Andrew Blomfield)
When I started reading for Diverse December it didn’t occur to me that a book from Uzbekistan would be on my list. I pulled Peirene Press’s The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov from the shelf because I initially ignored the “ov” at the end of the last name and made assumptions accordingly. But Ismailov’s story is a fascinating (and sad) one. He is the most widely published Uzbek writer, but his books are banned—even mentioning his name is likely to get you into trouble. He’s lived in exile in the UK since 1992.
The Dead Lake is set in the Kazakh steppe around a former nuclear test site. Yerzhan, the main character, moves from child to 27-year-old adult over the course of this non-chronological novel. The cumulative effect of the 468 nuclear explosions that were carried out at this test site between 1949 and 1989 exceeded the power of the Hiroshima bomb by a factor of 2500. The story is simply and effectively told, and is incredibly powerful. It’s the sort of thing Peirene does exceptionally well, and the sort of thing we need more of in English.
December 14, 2015 § 12 Comments
For some time I’ve been trying, and completely failing, to do the #TBR20 challenge. Failing, I think, because I like to arrange in advance all twenty books in a pile in the order I plan to read them, and then something happens: a library hold comes in with a two-week limit, I’m asked to review something, an ARC arrives, or some new book seems so wonderful I feel an urge to buy it and start reading on the spot. At least two of these will happen before I’ve finished even the first book on the pile, and then—well, then the whole thing is wrecked, naturally. I don’t handle disruption well.
So in a sort of reverse #TBR20 spirit, I’m choosing twenty books that will be published in 2016 that I’m really looking forward to. If I had to limit new book acquisition to just twenty in 2016, this would be a pretty good selection.
The publishing dates are probably a random mix of UK and Canadian, with a smattering of US dates in there, but most should be the book’s first publication date worldwide (feel free to comment if you know a book will be out earlier somewhere).
- Han Kang: Human Acts (Portobello, January, Korea, Deborah Smith)
The Vegetarian, which I wrote about for Open Letters Monthly earlier this year, was an excellent novel and an excellent translation–definitely one of my top five in 2015. Very much looking forward to this one, set in 1980 and dealing with suppression of dissent, protests and censorship.
2. Lina Wolff: Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (And Other Stories, January, Sweden, Frank Perry)
Women at a Spanish brothel are collecting stray dogs and naming them after famous authors. Swedish, funny and Bolaño-esque–what’s not to like?
3. Sunil Yapa: Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (Little, Brown, January, US)
Set during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, this debut novel promises rawness and heartbreak. Having once (many years ago) tried to write a novel based on political protests and radical activism, I’m eager to see what Yapa does with this.
4. Peter Verhelst: The Man I Became (Peirene, February, Netherlands, David Colmer)
This book is narrated by a gorilla which really should put me off. But it sounds very interesting, with the gorilla essentially a stand-in for humans and the dilemma of choosing between principles and self-preservation. It will be my first Peirene book as a subscriber, which is exciting in itself. I must confess that it also appealed because I initially confused the author with the Belgian Dmitri Verhulst (Problemski Hotel, Christ’s Entry into Brussels).
5. Raphael Montes: Perfect Days (Viking, February, Brazil, Alison Entrekin)
This combines a psychological thriller with a road-trip across Brazil. The author is a disgusting over-achiever: a celebrated writer, a lawyer, and he’s only twenty-five. Apparently his English is good enough to write a literary novel–or so you might believe from reading the various publishers’ pages about this book, none of which mention a translator. In fact, for all the big publishers on this list, I had to Google because the publisher “forgot” to #namethetranslator
6. Under the Stone, Karoline Georges (Anvil, Feb, Quebec, Jacob Homel)
This one seems intriguing but tricky to describe, so I’m going to simply quote Chantal Guy in La Presse: “A unique literary exercise that can’t be solely described as a traditional dystopian novel. Indeed, a disturbing strangeness worms its way throughout, a strangeness that could be at home in a fantasy novel, a realist psychological work, a poetic experience. Perhaps Karoline Georges has in fact created a new genre, the claustrophobic novel, but she demonstrates that despite whatever constraints are put on her work, a writer can create the most peculiar worlds through the singular strength of her imagination.”
7. Georgi Tenev: Party Headquarters (Open Letter, Feb, Bulgaria, Angela Rodel)
I am immediately attracted to anything with a life-under-communism theme, so this award-winning Bulgarian novel set in the 1980s and 1990s and dealing with both personal and political aspects of the transition from communism to democracy seems fascinating.
8. Fariba Hachtroudi: The Man Who Snapped His Fingers (Europa, February, France/Iran, Alison Anderson
From the Europa Editions website: “Winner of the 2001 French Human Rights Prize, French-Iranian author Hachtroudi’s English-language debut explores themes as old as time: the crushing effects of totalitarianism and the infinite power of love. She was known as “Bait 455,” the most famous prisoner in a ruthless theological republic. He was one of the colonels closest to the Supreme Commander. When they meet, years later, far from their country of birth, a strange, equivocal relationship develops between them. Both their shared past of suffering and old romantic passions come rushing back accompanied by recollections of the perverse logic of violence that dominated the dictatorship under which they lived. A novel of ideas, exploring power and memory by an important female writer from a part of the world where female voices are routinely silenced.”
9. Leonard Pfeijffer: La Superba (Deep Vellum, March, Netherlands, Michele Hutchison)
Another Deep Vellum book, Sphinx, by Anne Garréta and translated by Emma Kate Ramadan, was in my top five this year. For a new and tiny press, Deep Vellum is certainly getting some impressive others (which is probably, sadly, indicative of the enormous amount of literary talent waiting to be translated into English). Deep Vellum is a publisher whose catalogue I would happily read in its entirety.
The publisher’s blurb: A joy to read, profoundly funny, touching, and profound, La Superba, winner of the most prestigious Dutch literary prize, is a Rabelaisian, stylistic tour-de-force. Migration, legal and illegal, is at the center of this novel about a writer who becomes trapped in his walk on the wild side in mysterious and exotic Genoa, Italy—the labyrinthine, timeless port city nicknamed “La Superba.”
10. Helen Oyeyemi: What Is Yours Is Not Yours (Picador, March, UK)
Helen. Oyeyemi. Need I say more?
11. The Goddess of Fireflies, Geneviève Pettersen (March, Véhicule, Quebec, Neil Smith)
Acclaimed as not just a contemporary classic but also the Quebecois coming-of-age tale for those who grew up in the nineties, The Goddess of Fireflies, translated by Bang, Crunch author Neil Smith, is one not to be missed. Originally published in French by one of my favourite Quebec publishers, Le Quartanier.
12. Ismail Kadare: A Girl in Exile (Harvill Secker, March, Albania, John Hodgson)
My read-a-book-from-every-country-in-the-world ground to a halt after just one country (Afghanistan). This new book, from Albania’s best-known novelist, seems to have just the subject matter to draw me back in to the next country on the list.
From the publisher: “Stefa, a playwright, is called in for questioning by the Party committee after an unknown girl, Linda B., is found dead with a signed copy of his latest book in her possession. Stefa remembers dedicating the copy to Linda’s friend, who has since become his mistress. He soon learns that Linda’s family, considered suspect, were banished from Albania and that the girl committed suicide. Gradually Linda’s story unfolds: how she loved Stefa, and pretended to have cancer so she would be allowed back into the country to be near him, before succumbing to despair.”
13. Jacob Wren: Rich and Poor (BookThug, April, Canada)
I’ve yet to read a book by Jacob Wren, yet I’ve been fascinated from afar by him and his books for three years. Definitely time to remedy that situation with Wren’s newest book. Here’s the catalogue blurb: “Who hasn’t, at one time or another, considered killing a billionaire? Following on the critical success of his novel Polyamorous Love Song (one of The Globe and Mail’s 100 best books of 2014), Canadian writer and performer Jacob Wren picks up the mantle of the politically and economically disenfranchised in Rich and Poor—the story of a middle- class, immigrant pianist who has fallen on hard times, and now finds himself washing dishes to make ends meet. Rich and Poor is a rare work of literary fiction that cuts into the psychology of politics in ways that are off-kilter, unexpected, and unnerving. In drawing comparisons to fiction that focuses on “the personal as political” (including Chris Kraus’s Summer of Hate and Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives), Rich and Poor is a compelling, fast-paced, and energizing read for adventure-seeking, politically active and/or interested readers who rowdily question their position among “the 99%.”
Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing, out from BookThug in May, also looks very interesting (excerpt here).
14. Michèle Audin, One Hundred and Twenty-One Days (Deep Vellum, Christiana Hills, April, France)
Another one from Deep Vellum! The second female Oulipian to be published by this Texas house (Garréta was the first), Audin is a mathematician and was elected to the Oulipo in 2009. This novel, which spans the twentieth century with a disparate cast of mostly mathematician characters in a variety of locations on several continents, but particularly Europe in the two world wars, is difficult to describe but not to read. French cover (blurrily) pictured.
15. Catherine Leroux: The Party Wall (Biblioasis, April, Quebec, Lazer Lederhendler)
This is an author I have somehow failed to spot in Quebec lit, so I’m very glad Biblioasis is bringing this one to a wider audience. Leroux has just been nominated for the Prix des Libraires for her new novel, Madame Victoria. 49th Shelf describes this novel as reminiscent of the novels of Tom Robbins and David Mitchell. The publisher’s blurb:
Catherine Leroux’s first novel, translated into English brilliantly by Lazer Lederhendler, ties together stories about siblings joined in surprising ways. A woman learns that she absorbed her twin sister’s body in the womb and that she has two sets of DNA; a girl in the deep South pushes her sister out of the way of a speeding train, losing her legs; and a political couple learn that they are non-identical twins separated at birth. The Party Wall establishes Leroux as one of North America’s most intelligent and innovative young authors.
16. Basma Abdel Aziz: The Queue (Melville House, May, Egypt, Elisabeth Jaquette)
This Egyptian novel is set in an almost present-day Egypt, slightly more dystopian than reality. After a failed uprising, a sinister authority, the Gate, rises to power. The main character was shot during the uprising and is waiting for official permission to have a bullet removed; the novel is, intriguingly, structured using his medical records. My main fear about books from the Middle East is that they’ll be similar to The Kite Runner in tone, mood or style (because it’s a proven genre that sells in the Anglo world, not because all ME writing is actually like that, but this one is published by Melville House and is described as “evocative of George Orwell’s dystopias, of Kafkaesque surrealism, and of the dark satire of Sonallah Ibrahim’s ‘The Committee’,” by the translator in a review at Madr Masr so it’s pretty certain to be way better than that.
17. Lola Lafon: The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (Serpent’s Tail, June, France, Nick Caistor)
I read this book in French purely on the basis that I loved the title, and even though I knew almost nothing about the (real, fictionalised) main character, the Romanian Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci, the book was still really good. It’s not exactly historical fiction, but traces a life of this tiny gymnast who captured the imagination of many in the west when she scored a perfect 10 in Montreal in 1974. (French cover pictured.)
18. Clemens Meyer: Hearts Like Diamonds (Fitzcarraldo Editions, October, Germany, Katy Derbyshire)
I read Meyer’s All the Lights (And Other Stories, also translated by Katy Derbyshire) and really enjoyed his sometimes disorienting style. Katy gives a good flavour of the book at love german books:
It’s about the sex industry, about prostitutes and the men who make money out of them. It’s about one particular man, Arnold Kraushaar, who rents flats out to prostitutes and provides them with services, a man who doesn’t see himself as a pimp as such. And there are other men with other names running other businesses, club managers, gang members, policemen, fathers and regular customers. And there are women who work as prostitutes, and we learn some of their names but they never tell us them directly. It’s about the changes that happen in one big city in East Germany, from a state that tolerated a miniscule amount of informal prostitution to one in which it has been a legalized industry for ten years.
And there are stones and rocks – gemstones and crystal and eyes like diamonds, and tunnels through the rock under the city, and there are angels and killers and horror and there’s even love, or something like it. The women are all so different but most of them so strong, and p. 301 made me cry twice over and I had to skip one chapter when reading for the second time. There is Machiavelli and Karl Marx and Wolfgang Hilbig and David Peace and Hubert Fichte and Lewis Carroll, and no doubt more I haven’t identified. And it ends – almost – with Mahler, but is otherwise nothing like Open City.
Note to self: writing this list might be easier if I’d chosen books with easily described plots and clear narrative arcs.(German cover pictured.)
19. Éric Plamondon: Hungary–Hollywood Express (Véhicule, autumn, Quebec, Dimitri Nasrallah)
This is the first of a superb trilogy called 1984. I know I’m not the only one to be deeply envious of Dimitri Nasrallah for getting to translate this fantastic book. It is, naturally, impossible to describe, but you can read an excerpt at Drunken Boat. Each book in the trilogy looks back, in fragments, over the 20th century (lots of cultural references both obvious and sly for people who like that sort of thing), through the eyes of a famous person who has a particular connection with the year 1984 (the Tarzan actor Jonny Weissmuller, Steve Jobs and the American novelist Richard Brautigan).
20. Megan Bradbury: Everyone Is Watching (Picador, June, UK).
I’m pleased to say that my friend Megan Bradbury will be publishing her first novel next year. From the publisher: “Everyone is Watching is a novel about the men and women [including Edmund White, Robert Mapplethwaite and Walt Whitman] who have defined New York. Through the lives and perspectives of these great creators, artists and thinkers, and through other iconic works of art that capture its essence, New York itself solidifies. Complex, rich, sordid, tantalizing, it is constantly changing and evolving. Both intimate and epic in its sweep, Everyone is Watching is a love letter to New York and its people – past, present and future.” (No cover yet.)
November 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
When an unsolicited review copy of The Lemon Grove arrived (ages and ages ago now; I’ve just discovered this review all ready to go in my old files), I gave it a quick glance and looked away. Among my many rules of thumb when selecting reading material is the following: 10. Avoid books with fruit in the title. Off the top of my head, I can think of one successful exception to this rule (The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswathan). But then I remembered that Helen Walsh was the author of, among other things, Brass, which I had never read but whose reviews and reputation had stayed with me over the years. And then I thought, well, it’s a lemon, and not an apple. Perhaps it won’t be that bad.
The Lemon Grove opens with Jenn and Greg on holiday in their beloved Deia, on the picturesque side of Mallorca. They’ve been coming each year with Greg’s daughter Emma, but this year they’ve had a week on their own and then Emma is flying out with her new boyfriend, Nate. The fact of Nate accompanying Emma has been the source of much discussion and controversy in the family, but Jenn persuaded Greg that Emma, at fifteen, was old enough for this big step.
Helen Walsh has a respectable critical following. A review of The Lemon Grove in the Guardian claims that Walsh proves that literary fiction and erotica need not be mutually exclusive. I’m not convinced that this is entirely true. Some elements of the book are stronger than others: the fact that Jenn does not become ridiculous either during or after the fling shows that this is not a book reinforcing stereotypes about older women and sex, and that’s a good and rare thing. Although Nate comes off badly, Jenn manages in the end to bag not only the upper hand but also the moral high ground and her self-respect. The step-relationship is also well done: resentments that have been simmering for years, and resentments that mother and daughter each believe the other has been stewing in for years, come exploding out, as a diversion from what’s really going on, at a moment of extreme tension.
Sex, though, is often a problem for literary fiction. Many people bemoan literary writers’ supposed allergy to writing about sex, and in particular the act of it. The cringeworthy Bad Sex awards poke fun at people who try. Even if you take it as a joke or a compliment, who really wants to be humiliated over something so personal, even if it’s not remotely autobiographical? Isn’t the real problem with sex in literary fiction that sex, in real life, is one of the vanishingly few moments when we are truly present in our lives? Incorporating sex into literary fiction—a genre whose basic raison d’être of literary fiction is the absolute antithesis of mindfulness—is tricky. Literary characters are always looking back, reflecting, pondering. The most successful inclusions of sex scenes might be ones where the character isn’t present, and is instead thinking about the shopping list or making the children’s school lunches or someone else entirely, but it’s not a particularly original story.
And tension is part of it, too. The characters give in to desire too early, in narrative terms, after which point the tension is no longer will-they-won’t-they, but rather will they be discovered by Greg or Emma, will he betray her, what are Nate’s motives and does he really find Jenn that attractive, while apparently still being as interested as ever in Emma? The problem is that none of these really escalates into tension: many of the times they could be discovered are reported afterwards rather than in the breathless rush of immediate terror. Nate’s motives and intentions get murkier by the minute, but ultimately he feels a bit too shadowy
If you’re a literary reader looking for erotica—especially that rare-ish beast, erotica that is not based on submission fantasies or on women being degraded or humiliated—this novel is a good bet. If, on the other hand, you simply want a strong literary novel, you might be disappointed in this one.
November 26, 2015 § 2 Comments
I started reading Sara Baume’s debut novel immediately after I finished André Alexis’s Giller-winning Fifteen Dogs. I’d forgotten that Spill Simmer Falter Wither was a dog book, and I groaned out loud when I saw the dog on the front cover. But I’d picked the novel up on the basis of Eric Karl Anderson’s review, David Hebblethwaite’s review, and Michael Caines’ TLS blog post about six books by women that could have made an alternative Goldsmiths Prize shortlist (I also have Pond and Don’t Try This At Home to read). So despite the dog I was prepared to give it a chance. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the Alexis book, exactly, more that I felt I’d read too many similar things, even though I haven’t at all, and even though his book was cleverly done. I guess I’m just one of those snobbish readers that thinks books with animal characters are for children, although I can’t actually remember liking them even then. I don’t have, for example, especially fond memories of The Wind in the Willows or Watership Down. My limit for animal books was probably Beatrix Potter—less philosophy, perhaps.
Anyway, Baume’s novel is the tale of a lonely man who adopts a dog—not some friendly labrador or bouncy golden retriever, but a mutt who is frankly impossible to have around children or other dogs—even the man at the shelter calls him a“vicious little bugger.” The man, Ray, is fifty-seven (“too old for starting over, too young for giving up”) and his father has recently died. He’s more or less entirely socially incompetent in the way that Anakana Schofield’s Martin John is, except in this case it’s the father rather than the mother that has dominated for too long (and our man here has much less agency that Martin John—is, in fact, entirely under his father’s emotional control).
The book travels through the four seasons (spill, simmer, etc.) with the narrator plodding on through his sad and rather pitiful existence:
Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a shiny spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one-piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside. I know that you can’t see it; I can’t see it either, but when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit. When I queue to pay at a supermarket checkout, the cashier presses the backup bell and takes her toilet break. When I drive past a children’s playground, some au-pair nearly always makes a mental notes of my registration number. 93-OY-5731. They all think I don’t notice. But I do.
Tension mounts when the dog, One Eye, attacks another dog and possibly a small boy. Complaints are made, and the narrator finds himself living in his car for weeks on end to avoid having the dog removed by the authorities. The book is, in essence, a love letter to One Eye, the safe recipient of a love that has had almost nowhere else to go for Ray’s entire life. For all this, the novel admirably avoids sentimentality.
Spill had some things I like in a novel as well as some that I don’t, but, interestingly, these preferences (or prejudices) were somewhat upended by this book. First, there’s description—lots and lots of description. Normally I skip over description of places. It bores me. But Baume’s language is fresh and vital (“He’s a triangular men. Loafy shoulders tapering into flagpole legs, the silhouette of a root vegetable”), with some wonderful verbs (“There are cherry trees lining the roadway in full flower, spitting tiny pink pinches of themselves into the traffic”, and kept me reading throughout. On the other hand, plot, something I can usually take or leave, was in slightly too short supply for me in this book. I’m normally quite happy for a novel to meander around inside a character’s head without making any outward linear progress, but with this book the stasis of being on the road (no destination, same thing day in, day out) was not compensated for by enough interiority. Ray withholds almost all the details of his life until the shocking later stages of the book, but unlike in Rachel Cusk’s Outline, another book of narratorly secrecy, we don’t discover anything about other people either.
Although Spill Simmer Falter Wither won’t make my top ten of 2015, it’s a beautifully written book and an impressive debut. Sara Baume is definitely a writer to watch.
November 2, 2015 § 2 Comments
I’ve often thought I should read—would enjoy reading—Rachel Cusk. She’s one of those writers whose books are in the library, so I don’t buy them, but then they’re not on my shelves reminding me to read them, so I don’t. I’ve been aware of all the controversy over her, her books and her relationship with the press—which is quite baffling and would almost certainly be different if she was a man. I read reviews of Outline last year, but it sounded the least interesting of all her work—why would I want to read a book about “a novelist teaching a course in creative writing during an oppressively hot summer in Athens”? But Outline’s nomination for two Canadian literary awards (and for some reason I did actually know she was born in Canada), the Giller Prize and the Governor Generals’ Award, brought it back to my attention.
And I’m glad it did. It’s not really about someone teaching a creative writing course at all; the course is the thinnest of frames by which the novelist is brought to Greece and into the company of the people she meets. There’s no real plot, no conflict, no intrigue. The narrative arc consists of our meeting the narrator as she gets on the plane at Heathrow to fly to Athens, and leaving her as she says her goodbyes just before returning home. We never see her at home in her natural setting but we do learn something of her past and present through her thoughts and conversations.
As she travels to Greece and takes up her brief teaching job on the course, the narrator reports on her long conversations with various interesting people she meets. Saying it like this makes it sound about as exciting as “As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives…” but you’ll just have to trust me. Mostly the characters talk at her, but in great detail, so that what we learn about the narrator is just as much from her thought responses and reactions as it is from what she actually says. She only mentions this fact once, when somebody does ask her a question, and it strikes her as though this person has had to teach themselves to ask their interlocutor the occasional thing about themselves. Her students also have the chance to speak, and tend to speak in long soliloquies; they interrupt each other occasionally but mainly to talk about themselves rather than clarify something with the original speaker or draw out their point.
There are two chief features of the novel that are so well, and so consistently and repeatedly, well done that they start to wash over you, almost wasted, if you don’t take a moment to put the book down. The first is the sheer quality of the insights and observations. The conversationalists aren’t necessarily people we are supposed to like, and some are to varying degrees outright irritating in their self-absorption or their “cold-shower”ness (this is a concept from Milan Kundera, no idea which book, that I use as a shorthand with my nearest and dearest to indicate a person who goes on at interminable length about some little quirk about themselves that they have decided defines them and must be proclaimed to the world whenever possible. If you know which book I’m talking about do let me know). I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that Cusk treats them with empathy, because I think that’s not the point, but what she does is make sure that we understand that actually we are all people, we all share some of these anxieties and insecurities and tendencies to self-aggrandise.
The other feature is the tone, the sentence construction, the absolute care that has gone into the choice of each and every word. This might be, I suspect, the reason Outline appears on two prize lists this year—because this kind of writerly attention is not something that has been all that common in Canada of late, so its difference might have felt like something of a novelty. I don’t mean to imply that Canadian writers don’t weigh each and every word—far from it. But things other than sentences and their rhythm and music have been given higher priority: creating a deep emotional response in the reader, conveying often hidden but surprisingly universal feelings and reactions, evoking a sense of time and place. With Cusk, it’s all about the sentences.
To end, here’s a nice little quote from a conversation the narrator (whose name we only learn very near the end, when someone phones her, and it feels almost intrusive, as if we have found out by accident) has with her fellow teacher, Ryan, a writer who recently was given a six-month sabbatical to write but found himself instead embroiled in—and in fact seeking out—mundane domestic tasks like taking the baby to the park. He had a short story collection published a while before, but now
it’s like looking at old photographs of yourself. There comes a point at which the record needs to be updated, because you’ve shed too many links with what you were. He doesn’t quite know how it happened; all he knows is that he doesn’t recognise himself in those stories any more, though he remembers the bursting feeling of writing them, something in himself massing and pushing irresistibly to be born. He hasn’t had that feeling since; he almost thinks that to remain a writer he’d have to become one all over again, when he might just as easily have become an astronaut, or a farmer.
This reminded me of listening to the CBC the other day where someone, possibly one of the guest presenters on the classical part, was talking about the concept of inspiration as a Romantic invention—before that, inspiration was irrelevant. You had the technical skill, you knew the form, you had the practice behind you: off to work you went to produce what was expected of you.
Will it win the Giller? Who knows. It’s a strong shortlist, and one that is well worth reading in its entirety. I imagine it has a better shot at the Governor General’s Award, simply because I think that race is—to my taste—between three (Cusk, Cayley, Vanderhaeghe) rather than all five.