Posts tagged ‘Book Reviews’

September 30, 2013

“Recycling one’s own life with books” |Thirteen Notes on Susan Sontag’s Notebook Collection, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh

by Edwin Turner

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1. “In my more extravagant moments,” writes David Rieff in his introduction to Susan Sontag’s As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, “I sometimes think that my mother’s journals, of which this is the second of three volumes, are not just the autobiography she never got around to writing…but the great autobiographical novel she never cared to write.”

2. In my review of Reborn, the first of the trilogy Rieff alludes to, I wrote, “Don’t expect, of course, to get a definitive sense of who Sontag was, let alone a narrative account of her life here. Subtitled Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963Reborn veers closer to the “notebook” side of things.”

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is far closer to the ‘notebook’ side of things too, which I think most readers (or maybe I just mean me here) will appreciate.

3. I mean, this isn’t the autobiographical novel that Rieff suggests it might be (except of course it is).

Consciousness/Flesh offers something better: access to Sontag’s consciousness in its prime, not quite ripe, but full, heavy, bursting with intellectual energy,  her mind attuned to (and attuning) the tumult of the time the journals cover, 1964 through 1980.

It’s an autobiography stripped of the pretense of presentation; it’s a novel stripped of the pretense of storytelling.

4. Sontag’s intellect and spirit course through the book’s 500 pages, eliding any distinction between lives personal and professional. “What sex is the ‘I’?” she writes, “Who has the right to say ‘I’?” The journals see her working through (if not resolving, thankfully) such issues.

5. An entry from late 1964, clearly background for Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes on Camp” (itself a series of notes), moves through a some thoughts on artists and poets, from Warhol to Breton to Duchamp (“DUCHAMP”) to simply “Style,” which, Rieff’s editorial note tells us, has a box drawn around it. The entry then moves to define

Work of Art

An experiment, a research (solving a “problem”) vs. form of a play

—before turning to a series of notes on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.

6. A page or two later (1965) delivers the kind of gold vein we wish to discover in author’s notebooks:

PLOTS & SITUATIONS

Redemptive friendship (two women)

Novel in letters: the recluse-artist and his dealer a clairvoyant

A voyage to the underworld (Homer, Vergil [sic]Steppenwolf)

Matricide

An assassination

A collective hallucination (Story)

A theft

A work of art which is really a machine for dominating human beings

The discovery of a lost mss.

Two incestuous sisters

A space ship has landed

An ageing movie actress

A novel about the future. Machines. Each man has his own machine (memory bank, codified decision maker, etc.) You “play the machine. Instant everything.

Smuggling a huge art-work (painting? Sculpture?) out of the country in pieces—called “The Invention of Liberty”

A project: sanctity (based on SW [Simone Weil]—with honesty of Sylvia Plath—only way to solve sex “I” is talk about it

Jealousy

7. The list above—and there’s so much material like it in Consciousness/Flesh—is why I love author’s notebooks, We get to see the raw material here and imagine along with the writer (if we choose), free of the clutter and weight of execution, of prose, of damnable detail.

There’s something joyfully cryptic about Sontag’s notes, like the solitary entry “…Habits of despair” in late July of 1970—or a few months later: “A convention of mutants (Marvel comics).”

If we wish we can puzzle the notes out, treat them as clues or keys that fit to the work she was publishing at the time or to the personal circumstances of her private life. Or (and to be clear, I choose this or) we can let these notes stand as strange figures in an unconventional autobiographical novel.

8. Those looking for more direct material about Sontag’s life (and really, why do you want more and what more do you want?) will likely be disappointed—everything here is oblique (lovely, lovely oblique).

Still, there are moments of intense personal detail, like this 1964 entry where Sontag describes her body:

Body type

  • Tall
  • Low blood pressure
  • Needs lots of sleep
  • Sudden craving for pure sugar (but dislike desserts—not a high enough concentration)
  • Intolerance for liquor
  • Heavy smoking
  • Tendency to anemia
  • Heavy protein craving
  • Asthma
  • Migraines
  • Very good stomach—no heartburn, constipation, etc.
  • Negligible menstrual cramps
  • Easily tired by standing
  • Like heights
  • Enjoy seeing deformed people (voyeuristic)
  • Nailbiting
  • Teeth grinding
  • Nearsighted, astigmatism
  • Frileuse (very sensitive to cold, like hot summers)
  • Not very sensitive to noise (high degree of selective auditory focus)

There’s more autobiographical detail in that list than anyone craving a lurid expose could (should) hope for.

9. For many readers (or maybe I just mean me here) Consciousness/Flesh will be most fascinating as a curatorial project.

Sontag offers her list of best films (not in order),her ideal short story collection, and more. The collection often breaks into lists—like the ones we see above—but also into names—films, authors, books, essays, ideas, etc.

10. At times, Consciousness/Flesh resembles something close to David Markson’s so-called “notecard” novels (Reader’s Block, This Is Not a NovelVanishing Point, The Last Novel):

Napoleon’s wet, chubby back (Tolstoy).

and

Wordsworth’s ‘wise passiveness.’

and

Nabokov talks of minor readers. ‘There must be minor readers because there are minor writers.’

and

Camus (Notebooks, Vol. II): ‘Is there a tragic dilettante-ism?’”

and

‘To think is to exaggerate.’ — Valéry.

and so on…

11. Sometimes, the lists Sontag offers—

(offers is not the right verb at all here—these are Sontag’s personal journals and notebooks, her private ideas, material never intended for public consumption, but yes we are greedy, yes; and some of us (or maybe I just mean me here) are greedier than others, far more interested in her private ideas and notes and lists than the essays and stories and novels she generated from them—and so no, she didn’t offer this, my verb is all wrong)

—sometimes Sontag [creates/notes/generates] very personal lists, like “Movies I saw as a child, when they came out” (composed 11/25/65). There’s something tender here, imagining the child Sontag watching Fantasia or Rebecca or Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz in the theater; and then later, the adult Sontag, crafting her own lists, making those connections between past and present.

12. While Reborn showcased the intimate thoughts of a nascent (and at times naïve) intellect, Consciousness/Flesh shows us an assured writer at perhaps her zenith. In September of 1975, Sontag defines herself as a writer:

I am an adversary writer, a polemical writer. I write to support what is attacked, to attack what is acclaimed. But thereby I put myself in an emotionally uncomfortable position. I don’t, secretly, hope to convince, and can’t help being dismayed when my minority taste (ideas) becomes majority taste (ideas): then I want to attack again. I can’t help but be in an adversary relation to my own work.

13. Readers looking for a memoir or biography might be disappointed in Consciousness/Flesh; readers who seek to scrape its contours for “wisdom” (or worse, writing advice) should be castigated.

But As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh will reward those readers who take it on its own terms as an oblique, discursive (and incomplete) record of Sontag’s brilliant mind.

I’ll close this riff with one last note from the book, a fitting encapsulation of the relationship between reader and author—and, most importantly, author-as-reader-and-rereader:

Recycling one’s own life with books.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is new in trade paperback from Picador; you can read excerpts from the book at their site.

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December 6, 2012

Three Beautiful Books For Children (and Adults)

by Edwin Turner

As the season for giving arrives, Biblioklept reviews three beautiful books that children and adults alike will enjoy.

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First up is E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 Christmas classic Nutcracker in translation by Ralph Manheim and beautifully illustrated by the late Maurice Sendak. In 1983, Sendak designed sets and costumes for the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s adaptation of Nutcracker and in 1984 he translated some of those designs into a book edition.

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According to a 2001 profile with NPR, Sendak was initially unsure about working on what he considered “the most bland and banal of ballets.” However, upon reading Hoffman’s original text, Sendak discovered a work full of “weird, dark qualities that make it something of a masterpiece,” an observation he notes in his introduction to Nutcracker.

The NPR profile notes that Sendak intended to bring “Hoffmann’s original story back to audiences, especially by having the main character, a girl named Clara, brought back into the story.” Sendak believed

The whole ballet is about her and for the most part you get her in act one, and then she discreetly disappears for the rest of the work. My feeling is this has to be disturbing to children. . . . [She goes] where the wild things are . . . She is overwhelmed with growing up and has no knowledge of what this means. I think the ballet is all about a strong emotional sense of something happening to her, which is bewildering.

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These “strange, weird” qualities—the same tones that made Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are a classic of children’s literature—are on display in Nutcracker. Hoffman’s text in Manheim’s translation has a wonderfully episodic, even picaresque quality that restores a sense of adventure—and even peril—to the smooth play we might be familiar with sitting through each December.

Nutcracker’s reading level, length, and tone make it likely appropriate for children over eight or nine, but younger children will enjoy reading the story through Sendak’s marvelous and strange illustrations.

Nutcracker is available in a new hardback edition from Random House.

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Next up is Annelore Parot’s Kokeshi Kimonos from Chronicle Books.

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Koskeshi Kimonos is a fun and stylish book that uses kokeshi dolls to showcase facets of Japanese culture including attire and family life. The book features folding flaps, pull out sections, and other interactive features that will appeal to younger children. It’s the sort of aesthetically charming book that adults can enjoy as well.

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Kokeshi Kimonos will likely appeal to younger readers—five to nine—and seems particularly suited to girls (although this doesn’t mean boys wouldn’t enjoy it, of course). The cute kokeshis are a wonderful alternative to the sterile, plastic world of Barbie and other facile dolls.

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Finally, Ernest Raboff’s Albrecht Dürer, part of his Art for Children series. The book is out of print but not impossible to find.

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Raboff presents Dürer’s life simply and in clear context, using about a dozen beautiful  prints from the German master, as well as many of his etchings. Raboff also hand letters the book, and provides his own sketches and illustrations occasionally to clarify and explain Dürer’s work.

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What I love most about Raboff’s book though is the way he integrates elements of art appreciation into his book in subtle, simple ways. Lovely:

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June 14, 2012

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s Novel About Identity and Storytelling in North Korea

by Edwin Turner

Late in Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, the titular protagonist muses that, “In North Korea, you weren’t born, you were made.” The Orphan Master’s Son is a novel about what it means to claim agency—to literally make a self—in a totalitarian society that assigns an official narrative to each of its citizens. Our hero is Jun Do, a boy who takes on a martyr’s name like all North Korean orphans, even though he believes with absolute commitment in a narrative he’s created where he’s the son of the man who keeps him and the other orphan boys. His mother? Well, she’s a phantom in a photograph, a beautiful singer disappeared on a forgotten night.

In the orphanage, Jun Do decides which boys will eat and which ones will not, who will freeze and who will stay warm. He even chooses their names from the list of Revolutionary Martyrs. From the outset of his life, Jun Do must navigate a world where his own capacity for human feeling is always threatened, preëmpted, or outright destroyed by institutionalized suffering.

Reaching early adulthood, Jun Do joins the army where he’s trained in martial arts. He joins a tunnel unit, learning how to fight in total darkness. In the tunnels, Jun Do receives the first of many opportunities to defect (in this case to South Korea). Johnson explores the tension of such a choice again and again. In time, a special unit conscripts Jun Do to “pluck” (the official euphemism for kidnap) Japanese citizens from their own beaches and seafronts. As a reward for his skills, he’s allowed to learn English, and soon winds up as a radio spy on a North Korean fishing vessel (these are the best moments of the book). During this time, Jun Do eavesdrops on two American women who plan to row around the world, a plot point that resurfaces in the novel’s second-half. He also finds himself a decorated hero of North Korea—but almost as soon as he finds a would-be home and family in the fishing vessel and crew, he’s plucked away on a mission to Texas.

Okay: If the paragraph above seems all over the place, that’s because the first part of The Orphan Master’s Son, “The Biography of Jun Do,” is all over the place—in a good way. There’s a dazzling giddiness to the tale of Jun Do, and the swift turns of his identity read like a picaresque novel. I was repeatedly reminded of Candide or Invisible Man. It’s worth recalling Ralph Ellison’s description of Invisible Man : “it stands on its own if only as one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.”

“The Biography of Jun Do” stands on its own as well, and for me it was the highlight of The Orphan Master’s Son, full of black humor, satirical venom, and genuine pathos. It also showcases some of the best prose in the novel. Let me share some, at length. Here’s the captain of the fishing boat (probably my favorite character in the novel). A bit of context: Pyongyang orders the fishing boat to obtain fresh shrimp, a mission that will take them illegally into Russian waters—an offense the captain has already been incarcerated for:

“The Russians gave me four years,” he said. “Four years on a fish-gutting ship, forever at sea, never once did we go to port. I got the Russians to let my crew go. They were young, village boys mostly. But next time? I doubt it.”

“We’ll just go out for shrimp,” the Pilot said, “and if we don’t get any, we don’t get any.”

The Captain didn’t say anything to that plan. “The trawlers were always coming,” he said. “They’d be out for weeks and then show up to transfer their catch to our prison ship. You never knew what it would be. You’d be down on the gutting floor, and you’d hear the engines of a trawler coming astern and then the hydraulic gates opening up and sometimes we’d even stand on our saw tables because down the chute, like a wave, would come thousands of fish—yellowtail, cod, snapper, even little sardines—and suddenly you were hip deep in them, and you’d fire up your pneumatic saws because nobody was getting out until you’d gutted your way out. Sometimes the fish were hoarfrosted from six weeks in a hold and sometimes they’d been caught that morning and still had the slime of life on them.

“Toward afternoon, they’d sluice the drains, and thousands of liters of guts would purge into the sea. We’d always go up top to watch that. Out of nowhere, clouds of seabirds would appear and then the topfish and sharks—believe me, a real frenzy. And then from below would rise the squid, huge ones from the Arctic, their albino color like milk in the water. When they got agitated, their flesh turned red and white, red and white, and when they struck, to stun their victims, they lanterned up, flashing bright as you could imagine. It was like watching underwater lightning to see them attack.

“One day, two trawlers decided to catch those squid. One set a drop net that hung deep in the water. The bottom of this net was tethered to the other trawler, which acted like a tug. The squid slowly surfaced, a hundred kilos some of them, and when they started to flash, the net was towed beneath them and buttoned up.

“We all watched from the deck. We cheered, if you can believe that. Then we went back to work as if hundreds of squid, electric with anger, weren’t about to come down that chute and swamp the lot of us. Send down a thousand sharks, please—they don’t have ten arms and black beaks. Sharks don’t get angry or have giant eyes or suckers with hooks on them. God, the sound of the squid tumbling down the chute, the jets of ink, their beaks against the stainless steel, the colors of them, flashing. There was this little guy on board, Vietnamese, I’ll never forget him. A nice guy for sure, kind of green, much like our young Second Mate, and I sort of took him under my wing. He was a kid, didn’t know anything about anything yet. And his wrists, if you’d seen them. They were no bigger than this.”

Jun Do heard the story as if it were being broadcast from some far-off, unknown place. Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous. Jun Do needed his typewriter, he needed to get this down, this was the whole reason he listened in the dark.

“What was his name?” he asked the Captain.

“The thing is,” the Captain said, “the Russians aren’t the ones who took her from me. All the Russians wanted was four years. After four years they let me go. But here, it never ends. Here, there is no limit to anything.”

“What’s that mean?” the Pilot asked.

“It means wheel her around,” the Captain told him. “We’re heading north again.”

The Pilot said, “You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”

“What I’m going to do is get us some shrimp.”

Jun Do asked him, “Were you shrimping when the Russians got you?”

But the Captain had closed his eyes. “Vu,” he said. “The boy’s name was Vu.”

I’ve quoted so much here—really more than belongs in a book review, I suppose—because I think that this little story perfectly condenses the novel’s best features. Our characters are forced into an impossible situation, one that can’t have a good end for them. We also get the sense of the deep personal loss—of disappeared persons—that haunts The Orphan Master’s Son. And: The power of story-telling, to move and motivate and thrill, but also to be yet another agent in the aforementioned disappearing.

The excerpt above is a really great stand-alone piece of writing, and I guess I feel the need to clarify that I think Johnson is a pretty good writer before I set about telling you why I didn’t like the second half of The Orphan Master’s Son.

I should probably clarify that I think many people will enjoy this novel and find it very moving and that the faults I found in its second half likely have more to do with my taste as a reader than they do Johnson’s skill as a writer, which skill,  again I’ve tried to demonstrate is accomplished. I like picaresque novels, fragmentary novels, novels that let the reader do the heavy-lifting, novels that leave open spaces and gaps. The first half of The Orphan Master’s Son is such a novel. The second half, “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” settles down into a plot- and motif-driven arc that too-often overstates its case. For me, a good riff of dark, sad, occasionally hilarious tales cohered too heavily in “Confessions” into a gelatinous mess of plot strands verging on soap opera. Johnson’s admirable ambition leads him to overload the novel with unmanageable plot turns and leitmotifs.

The biggest problem though is the overwhelming suspicion that Johnson is simply out of his element in trying to inhabit the North Korean imagination. Although he’s clearly done his research, North Korea is essentially closed to the rest of the world. And Johnson is a U.S. American. I mean, there’s this whole other impossible-to-digest ball of wax here that makes Johnson’s admirable intent to write a novel about “propaganda” just way too complicated to suss out in a review, and I’ll admit that I tend to read like a reviewer, and that these notions just bugged the hell out of me as the novel progressed.

Johnson’s novel repeatedly reminded me of David Mitchell’s excellent historical epic The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a book that also obsesses over storytelling and identity in a closed nation. Mitchell’s novel provides the Western reader with a European surrogate in the titular de Zoet, an obvious device that nonetheless adds to the book a richness—and frankly an authenticity—that The Orphan Master’s Son lacks. Johnson’s title character (again, reader surrogate) is North Korean, and even though Johnson takes pains to show the internal machinations of his character’s changing personality, there’s a deeply U.S. American perspective that underwrites his psychology. We’re repeatedly told that in North Korea it’s the story that’s absolute, “But in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters.” By changing his story, Jun Do emotionally, spiritually, psychologically (choose your idiom) defects to The Land of Opportunity.

If I’ve withheld summarizing or even illustrating the plot of “The Confessions of Commander of Ga,” I’ve done so to avoid spoilers. Again, many people will dig this novel, and any explication would ruin its second half. Let’s just say there’s an actress. And a second life. And those rowers come up again. And a love story. And a branding iron. And the Americans. And The Dear Leader, of course. And Casablanca. And dogs. Etc.

The Orphan Master’s Son is very much a dystopian novel, and its second half often reads like the love story from 1984 (should I point out here how dreary I often found that plot form 1984? No? Fair enough). Toward the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, I began imagining how the novel might read as a work divorced from historical or political reality, as its own dystopian blend—what would The Orphan Master’s Son be stripped of all its North Korean baggage? (This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it is the question I asked myself). I think it would be a much better book, one that would allow Johnson more breathing room to play with the big issues that he’s ultimately addressing here—what it means to tell a story, what it means to create, what it means to love a person who can not just change, but also disappear. These are the issues that Johnson tackles with aplomb; what’s missing though, I think, is a genuine take on what it means to be a North Korean in search of identity.

May 4, 2011

The Third Reich: Part I — Roberto Bolaño

by Edwin Turner

Two years ago, a typed manuscript for Roberto Bolaño’s unpublished novel The Third Reich The Third Reich was discovered. The Paris Review is serializing the novel, publishing it in full over four issues in a translation by Natasha Wimmer. I finished the first part of The Third Reich last night, reading the 63 pages in one engrossing session.

Udo Berger, a German from Stuttgart with a passion for war games, narrates the story in the form of a journal he keeps, detailing the daily events of a vacation he is taking in a Spanish resort town with his girlfriend Ingeborg. The couple checks in to the Del Mar, a seaside hotel where Udo spent a few teenage summers with his family. He seems driven to return to this particular hotel, at least in part, by memories of the enigmatic Frau Else, an alluring German woman who married the hotel’s Spanish owner. Frau Else barely remembers Udo, a fact that disappoints him, yet he nevertheless pursues strange awkward conversations with her; it’s unclear to both Udo and the reader what, exactly, he hopes to gain from talking to her.

Indeed, Udo’s intentions and motivations are strange and murky in general. He’s the classic unreliable narrator. In particular, Udo’s perceptions (and descriptions of those perceptions) seem to be clouded by a radical fear of otherness, and an underlying contempt for almost everyone. He’s also a little paranoid, perhaps, in part anyway, because we get the sense that Ingeborg might be just a bit out of his league. Consider the following scene—

Ingeborg was at her most radiant, and when we walked into the club we were greeted with covert admiring glances. Admiring of Ingeborg and envious of me. Envy is something I always pick up on right away. Anyways, we didn’t plan to spend much time there. And yet as fate would have it, before long a German couple sat down at our table.

That German couple is Hanna and Charly, and Udo quickly comes to detest them, although he repeatedly points out that he covers his disgust at all times (and, by the end of Part I, it’s clear that he has an unvoiced sexual attraction to Hanna). Charly is boorish, foolhardy, and quick to make friends with the locals. Through him, the Germans become acquainted with two locals Udo dubs the Wolf and the Lamb. The Wolf and the Lamb take the four tourists to the kind of working class haunts that only locals go to; Charly and the girls find adventure in this, but Udo is contemptuous and disgusted of these clubs, bars, and restaurants. His depictions of the local spots veer into classic Bolaño territory, that mix of unnerving dread and surreal energy, a kind of Lynchian anxiety that suggests abyssal darkness looms under the veneer of every “normal” surface.

Udo would rather stay in the hotel and work on his war game; he’s devoted the summer to playing out a new strategy and writing an essay about it for one of the various magazines devoted to the hobby. Ingeborg is embarrassed and ashamed of Udo’s passion for games, and when Hanna shows interest in the large hexagonal board set up in their room, Ingeborg quickly rushes her out to the beach. Udo, for the first time realizes this division in his relationship with Ingeborg, who spends her time on various daytrips (perhaps, although Udo doesn’t seem to recognize this, with the Wolf and the Lamb)—yet he fecklessly makes amends by buying cheap gift store jewelery, and avers that losing Ingeborg would destroy him. A dark set up.

The only person apart from Frau Else who Udo takes any interest in is El Quemado (“the Burned One”), a horribly burn-scarred, well-muscled man who makes a living renting paddle boats to tourists. Udo becomes obsessed with El Quemado when he realizes that the man seems to build a shelter out of the paddle boats each night; over time, he strikes up a strange friendship, leading to the revelation that they share a trait: both consider themselves writers.

The Third Reich, composed at the beginning of Bolaño’s career as a novelist, doesn’t feature the labyrinthine syntax or heteroglossia of later works, but it does showcase the particularly Bolañonian sense of dread that seethes under so many of his works. The novel feels like a slow burn, with plenty of sinister elements in play—but there’s also the possibility that this nervous dread stems from Udo’s internal paranoia. In any case, Bolaño is beginning to play with the tropes of the detective novels and crime fiction he loved so much. As I argued in my review of Amulet last month, the more one reads Bolaño, the more difficult it is to parse his fictions from each other. Instead, they seem part of the Bolañoverse, a dark visceral inversion of our own world. Thus The Third Reich strongly recalls the title story in the collection Last Evenings on Earth, where the narrator B and his father take a bizarre, sinister vacation in Acapulco. The Third Reich also obviously recalls Nazi Literature in the Americas, which featured an entire chapter on neo-Nazi boardgames.

Of course, my observations are only drawn from the first fourth of the novel, but as a Bolaño fan I was not disappointed. I just wanted more—but I guess I’ll have to wait for the summer issue.

April 14, 2010

John Updike’s Rules for Reviewing Books

by Biblioklept

From Picked-up Pieces (1975):

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

April 1, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

by Edwin Turner

pride-zombies

The blurb on the back of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies brazenly declares that Seth Grahame-Smith’s addition of zombie-fighting action to Austen’s classic “transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.” Perhaps the blurb’s brag is just a bit of cheeky fun; after all, Austen’s staid survey of manners and mores is a perennial favorite, coming in second to only The Lord of the Rings in a recent BBC poll of British readers, as well as topping a similar poll in Australia. Clearly, people not only want to read it, they actually do, and in large numbers each year. There’s even been enough interest in it for a not-that-bad movie update just a few years ago. So it’s hardly as if Pride and Prejudice is a corpse in need of resuscitation. This begs the question: What nuances and comments does Grahame-Smith have to add? Not much, we’re afraid.

The most interesting aspect of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is its concept, a promise for weird laughs and sick kicks neatly summed up in its fantastically morbid cover. Grahame-Smith doesn’t so much re-imagine Pride, but simply stuff a murderous host of zombies into Austen’s romance. These “unmentionables,” as the polite Regency society folks call them, wage a war on good stolid Englishmen. Fortunately Mr. Bennet has trained his daughters, led by feisty Elizabeth, in the ways of the ninja. Between matchmaking, letter-writing, polite dances, and furtive glances at Mr. Darcy, the Bennet sisters slice up zombies left and right with their katanas. The press-release for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies claims that the book retains 85% of Austen’s original, and no major plot points are changed or missing. Instead, the reader is subjected to seemingly purposeless bouts of zombie fighting after every scene. Of course, to decry these fights as purposeless seems silly; after all, when you pick up a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, you expect zombies, don’t you?

Grahame-Smith’s premise sounds like great good fun in theory, but it turns out that adding zombies and ninjas to a classic beloved romance is neither terribly engaging or interesting. We love zombies at Biblioklept, but the most effective zombie tales–28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead–work beyond horror and serve also as a form of social commentary or even satire. Grahame-Smith seems to miss, or even ignore, any opportunity to comment on, criticize, or otherwise inform the novel he’s cannibalizing. Instead, his additions convey the energy, wit, and sophistication of a one-note SNL sketch. The premise gets old fast, and it becomes increasingly confusing who this novel is for. It’s unlikely to appeal to most Austen fans, as it provides no real comment on her methods, plotting, or characterization, and as far as a zombies-and-ninjas riff goes, it’s pretty standard fare. Ultimately, it seems like more of a conversation piece than something you’d actually read for enjoyment, a little coffee table book that might evoke some interest. Flick through the amusing illustrations, chuckle, and move on.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is available soon from Quirk Books.

November 25, 2008

A Mercy — Toni Morrison

by Edwin Turner

a-mercy

With her latest novel A Mercy, Toni Morrison offers up more evidence of why she is possibly America’s greatest living author. As in earlier works like Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, in A Mercy Morrison examines the strange intersections of race and geography, family and culture, memory and storytelling. And like those great novels before it, at the center of A Mercy (a center, mind you that Morrison frequently works to decenter) is that great post-modern question: what is identity?

The late-seventeenth-century America of A Mercy is at once paradoxically both alien and familiar. This America is seemingly wild and free and unconstrained, yet the land–purchased with the blood of the native Indians–is worked by slaves and indentured servants. The freedom to be viciously intolerant of anyone else’s religion abounds. A lazy eye might get you burned for a witch. Life is cheap and difficult, but there is also much beauty here, and for a time, the makeshift family of characters who populate A Mercy seems happy enough. Morrison’s genius in this novel, however, is to only present these moments of contentment and happiness in fragments, interspersed between each of her character’ desires for freedom, future, family, and ultimately, self. We see glimpses of one character’s joys or sufferings through the eyes of another character, a technique that builds and layers and enriches a narrative where, honestly, very little happens. A farmer-turned-trader gets sick and dies, never finishing the house he was building. Then his wife gets sick, and sends her young slave to get the blacksmith, a free black man, who she believes can heal her. By the time he arrives, she’s better, but her ersatz family is forever sundered. Summarized, the linear plot sounds thin, but the depth of storytelling around Morrison’s deceptively simple story is marvelous. Morrison achieves this depth via the different voices and perspectives that propel her novel.

The voice of the young enslaved girl Florens initiates the novel with the enigmatic opening line, “Don’t be afraid.” Her opening command both engages and disorients (and, sign of a great novel, begs to be read again after completing the book). “Stranger things happen all the time everywhere,” she recognizes, before asking “One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read?” Right away, Morrison tells us this a novel about how to read, where to find cause, and possibly, how to create one’s own agency in a world that makes slaves and servants–or food–out of almost everybody.

William Blake - Europe Supported by Africa and America (1796)

William Blake - Europe Supported by Africa and America (1796)

This question of agency runs throughout each of the chapters that alternate with Florens’s first person narrative. There’s Jacob Vaark, who takes Florens as part of a debt owed him by a fading aristocrat. Vaark is disgusted at the aristocrat’s lavish lifestyle, and although the slave trade repels him – “God help me if this is not the most wretched business” – he agrees to take Florens at the pleading of her mother (Florens will be haunted forever by what she interprets as abandonment). Vaark is, however, smitten by the slaver’s elaborate house and vows to build one just as grand. His attempt to build a castle from his own labor in the New World, a castle free from any title or rank or order is his own claim to agency. There’s also the voice of his wife Rebekkah, who spends her chapter in a pox-ridden fever dream that dips and floats and weaves through time and space. Her father essentially sells her mail-order to Jacob. She leaves the dirty, crowded Old World on a dirty, crowded ship. Stuck in dark steerage, she makes a community with a group of whores, “Women of and for men,” who, in transit, exist in a strange uncomfortable comfort, a “blank where a past did not haunt nor a future beckon.” Rebekkah will attempt to forge another strange, transitory family when she arrives in America. She grows quickly to love Jacob; soon, she even loves Lina, the enslaved Indian girl Jacob buys for both pity and service. Lina and Rebekkah forge an alliance, weathering the death of the Vaark’s children, as well as Jacob’s extended absences as he expands his trade. They are less ready to accept another foundling, Sorrow, who Jacob brings home (solely for pity); a little bit crazy (“daft”), she spends much of the novel mysteriously pregnant. However, Lina quickly warms to Florens, treating her as her own daughter, even if Rebekkah will not. Also there are Scully and Willard, two indentured servants who may never gain their freedom. Willard imagines the family they all comprise: “A good-hearted couple (parents), and three female servants (sisters, say) and them helpful sons.” But it’s not family, or community, or the idea of a country that A Mercy will validate. Instead, the novel suggests these concepts are ultimately transitory–like a passage over the Atlantic–and that there can only be a claiming of self.

Throughout the book, some characters gain agency, others die trying, and several lose themselves to grief and loss. But it’s Florens’s narrative that binds the text. She grows from a lovesick kid, desperate to please everyone, to a realized person with a conscious sense of her self. “The beginning begins with the shoes,” she says. “When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes.” By the end of the novel she can go barefoot, free, in a sense, the soles of her feet “hard as cypress” – and this New World requires hard soles. And even if Morrison suggests that we need to learn to walk, hard-soled on our own feet, there is a great pleasure–a sad, sometimes sour, shocking pleasure–to be gained in walking for just a little while in these characters’ shoes. Very highly recommended.

A Mercy is now available from Knopf.

November 14, 2008

The Savage Detectives — Roberto Bolaño

by Edwin Turner

savage

I give up. I don’t know how to review The Savage Detectives.

Everyone told me I was supposed to love this book, but I didn’t. There, that’s a review. Not a good review, but there. I can’t remember a book ever taking me so long to finish or a book that I put down so often. When I truly love a book, I am moved. Often physically. Sometimes I have to stand up to read a book, I’m so moved. That’s a good book. (I never had to stand up during The Savage Detectives, although I often had to force myself to read thoroughly and not just skim). When I truly love a book, I’m a little sad and deflated when it’s over. I know a book is great if I’m compelled to go back and immediately reread sections. (Again, with Detectives, this didn’t happen). But it looks like I’m trashing the book. I shouldn’t. It has a lot going for it.

I read the first 140 pages, the journal entries of young Garcia Madero, in a blur. Funny and passionate, Madero’s voice explodes with the immediacy and intensity of youth. He joins up with the visceral realists, a group of anti-establishment poets (who no one cares about). Led by two enigmatic outsiders, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the visceral realists gripe about the state of Mexican and Latin American literature, screw around, and argue with each other (no one else will listen to them). Madero paints Mexico City in the mid-1970s as vibrant, a place full of poetry and art. He becomes a biblioklept, God bless him (yet he ethically agrees not to steal from a poor old blind bookseller). He writes poems. He has sex. He runs away from home, sort of. There’s a breathless energy to Madero’s narrative that makes the book hard to put down, and the first section of The Savage Detectives, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” culminates in one of the book’s most exciting events. Madero, Lima, and Belano help a young girl named Lupe escape from her belligerent pimp. Then, that portion of the story unresolved, the narrative shifts dramatically.

In the second section, “The Savage Detectives,” we are treated to, or subjected to, or made to endure, or made to navigate–pick your verb, please–over 450 pages of (one-sided) interviews spanning 20 years. Some of the interviewees appear consistently throughout this section, like Amadeo Salvatierra, who helps Lima and Belano in their quest to find the lost original visceral realist, Cesárea Tinajero. Other voices only pop up once to tell a weird story about Lima or Belano–or more accurately, a weird story about themselves with Lima or Belano playing bit parts. Some of these stories, like Lima’s strange time in a Tel Aviv prison, or Belano’s tenure as a national park guard in France are great; other times they are painfully tedious or repetitive (you know, like real life).

Technically, The Savage Detectives is quite an achievement. The myriad stories in the book’s main section represent the fragmented narratives that might compose a person’s life–a series of perspectives that others have about us, views that can never add up to a unified truth. The bulk of these stories are very much about poetry, art, and travel. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, Detectives is a peripatetic novel, full of specific locations and very, very explicit directions (Joyce famously claimed that were Dublin destroyed in a catastrophe, it could be rebuilt based on his novel; the same seems true for Bolaño’s Mexico City). Also like Ulysses, Detectives is an epic about the banal, ordinary things that fill our lives: jobs and eating and getting to places and having one’s friendships sour and being disappointed and so on. Lots and lots of “and so on.” This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of heroism and adventure–saving kids from satanic caves, stow-away sea voyages, and dodging bullets from Liberian rebels make for interesting narrative peaks. However, most of the novel remains rooted in a realism that is often dreadfully visceral in its painstaking replication of just how depressing a life could be. As the seventies and eighties turn into the nineties, things get more bleak and more depressing for Lima and Belano. And it all adds up to an incomplete picture (literally; check out the last page of the book if you don’t believe me).

o_roberto-bolano

By the time we return to Madero’s journals in the third and final part of the novel, “The Sonora Desert,” the sadness and deflation of the previous section infects and tints every aspect of the narrative. Lima and Belano, with Madero and Lupe in tow, search desperately for the forgotten poet Cesárea Tinajero. Their search works as a pitiful parallel to “The Savage Detectives” section, a comment on the elusive nature of identity, and the strange disappointments that punctuate our expectations. Even the novel’s climactic ending seems understated after the monolithic middle section. And while this deflationary technique is undoubtedly a carefully considered conceit on Bolaño’s part, the payoff for the reader–this reader anyway–did not merit the effort and concentration that the book required. Or, to put it another way, after hours of time invested, I was unmoved.

As rave reviews of the English translation of his last novel 2666 begin seeping out of the critical woodwork (this month’s Harper’s has devoted a full four pages to the book), it seems that Bolaño will top most critics’ lists again this year. At over 900 pages and reportedly full of grim, bleak violence, it’s hard to imagine 2666 will be any easier to get through, and as FS&G summarily ignored our requests for a review copy, there’s no pressing obligation, I suppose. The critical praise heaped on 2666 this year will surely lead interested readers to The Savage Detectives. I think Mark Twain’s infamous note at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would provide the best warning to these potential readers: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” While no serious critic could dismiss Bolaño’s lyrical skill and complex control of the many voices that populate Detectives, I think a number of readers–serious readers–would not be wrong for considering the tome a bit overrated.

November 10, 2008

The Wasted Vigil — Nadeem Aslam

by Edwin Turner

the-wasted-vigil

Nadeem Aslam’s new novel The Wasted Vigil ambitiously attempts to contextualize three decades of conflict in Afghanistan through the lives of its three main characters: Marcus, an English doctor living near Tora Bora, whose Afghani wife was killed by the Taliban, Lara, a Russian woman searching for her missing brother who disappeared during the Soviet invasion, and David, the ex-CIA operative tortured by his past. There’s also the young Islamic fundamentalist Casa, who dreams of jihad–possibly the novel’s most interesting character. Aslam weaves these stories together in a meditation on art and war, beauty and violence, and family and politics, never shying away from the brutality of a good stoning or elective amputation.

The Wasted Vigil works best when Aslam restrains his language and communicates in a more journalistic style. These moments are few and far between, however; most of the time, Aslam is overly concerned with explicitly announcing every allusion and broadly indicating the critical or aesthetic importance of even the slightest of his characters’ actions. Aslam’s prose is far more satisfying when he backs away from overblown, overwritten sentences and simply lets his readers figure out what’s going on for themselves. That said, Aslam can certainly turn an artful phrase–it’s just that artful phrase piled upon artful phrase becomes showy, even tacky. Restraint allows prose to build rhythmically and payoff meaningfully, but there isn’t enough restraint here.

Of course, Aslam’s subject matter is hardly restrained. Afghanistan is a place of remarkable violence and brutality, but also a place rich with history and culture. Perhaps Aslam’s editors believed his audience deserved an overtly complex representation of Afghanistan, and perhaps they are right in this belief. After all, the country has been very much in the background of the West’s political conscience for the past decade (translating in to big success for other books about Afghanistan, notably Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner). Undoubtedly, there are a great many who will enjoy The Wasted Vigil. Those fascinated with Afghanistan and its sad, strange, violent history will have more than enough to mull over in this elaborate, intelligent, thoughtful novel.

The Wasted Vigil is now available in hardback from Knopf.

November 9, 2008

John Leonard, 1939-2008

by Biblioklept

leonard_span

American critic John Leonard died of lung cancer last Wednesday. From The New York Times obituary:

John Leonard, a widely influential and enduringly visible cultural critic known for the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his inquiries and the lavish passion of his prose, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 69 and lived in Manhattan. . . .

As a critic, Mr. Leonard was far less interested in saying yea or nay about a work of art than he was in scrutinizing the who, the what and the why of it. His writing opened a window onto the contemporary American scene, examining a book or film or television show as it was shaped by the cultural winds of the day.

Amid the thicket of book galleys he received each week, Mr. Leonard often spied glimmers that other critics had not yet noticed. He was known as an early champion of a string of writers who are now household names, among them Mary Gordon, Maxine Hong Kingston and the Nobel Prize winners Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez.

Mr. Leonard’s prose was known not only for its erudition, but also for its sheer revelry in the sounds and sentences of English. Stylistic hallmarks included wit, wordplay, a carefully constructed acerbity and a syntax so unabashedly baroque that some readers found it overwhelming. The comma seemed to have been invented expressly for him.

I’ve subscribed to Harper’s for about a decade now, and in that time John Leonard’s “New Books” column has been not only one of my favorite features of the magazine, but also an inspirational guide on how to review a book. Leonard knew how to show why a book mattered; he also knew how to capture the essence of not just the plot but the author’s style in just a few short lines–something that’s really, really tough to do. I read one of Leonard’s last reviews, a write up of Toni Morrison’s latest A Mercy in this month’s Harper’s, just last Monday to a group of my high school students who were interested in Morrison’s work. The review made one of them say: “I want to read that book.” I think there is no higher compliment for any critic. John Leonard will be missed.

April 30, 2008

Down to a Sunless Sea

by Edwin Turner

Mathias B. Freese’s slim collection of short stories, Down to a Sunless Sea, relays the weird, miserable, and even sometimes ghoulish existences of people you might pass on the street everyday. The stories read like psychological case studies, and there’s frequently a strange distance between the clinical detachment of the prose and the depressed or depraved sentiment expressed by the narrator. At times the effect is painful, as in “Herbie,” where the titular protagonist’s rage at his abusive father spills over into Oedipal violence. Elsewhere, the stories take on a wry surrealist humor. Freese’s knack for dissonance evinces in “Juan Peron’s Hands,” where a grave robber pines for a head but settles for hands. Far closer to home is “Young Man,” where Freese distills an entire life to a few bitter pages, exploring the modern disconnect between thought, action and identity.

I can’t be who I am in real life, so I can be who I am in thought, but who I am in thought is not who I am in deed, so I live between what is and what should be, and this serves to make sharper the cleavage–the crevices are clearly marked.

One of my favorites in the collection, “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Father Was a Nazi,” disconcertingly (and humorously) condenses American obsession with celebrity into a fantasy ski trip, complete with the oddly sorta-prescient line: “I might even run for president if I can lose this accent” (the story was originally published in 1991). It is probably the deformed voyeur hero of “I’ll Make It, I Think” who delivers the closest thing to a mantra for these characters:

I’m not hurting anyone. So what if my morning shorts are sticky. I’m a good person. The outside, for sure, is a shambles–that’s not completely true, but I’ve made my point. Inside is fucked up some, but I’ll make it, I think.

Down to a Sunless Sea, for all its monsters and perverts and manic depressives, is never cruel in its darkness or unsympathetic in its distance. Freese creates real people here, and if we laugh at their pain, we’re laughing with them. Highly recommended.

July 5, 2007

The Children’s Hospital — Chris Adrian

by Edwin Turner

childrenshospital.jpg

“The book started out a lot more like a big happy Love Boat episode, then 9/11 (and all that followed) happened and blew it in a new direction.”–Chris Adrian (McSweeney’s interview)

Chris Adrian’s 2006 novel The Children’s Hospital begins with the end of the world. A flood of (excuse me) biblical proportions drowns every living thing on earth with the exception of a children’s hospital which has been specially engineered with the aid of an angel to withstand both the flood as well as life at sea. The residents of the newly nautical hospital–doctors, med students, specialists, nurses, some 699 sick children, portions of their families and sundry others–must navigate an uncertain future drenched in despair and loss. Their mission of helping the ill is the only thing that sustains them–initially.

Central to the story is Jemma Claflin, a mediocre third-year med student with a haunted past. Years before the deluge, each member of her family and her long-term boyfriend died in a horrific way, leaving Jemma unable to love, let alone believe in a positive future. However, as the book progresses, it becomes apparent that Jemma will have to best her fear and become the hero of this epic novel.

I really, really enjoyed The Children’s Hospital. Adrian’s writing communicates a stirring mix of immediacy and pathos, tempered in a cynical humor that sharply bites at any hint of sentimentality. Despite its 615 pages, epic scale, and use of multiple narrative viewpoints, The Children’s Hospital never sprawls into logorrhea–Adrian holds the plot reins tightly at all times, sparingly measuring details which accrue neatly to an affecting payoff. The middle 200 page section of this book is easily the best thing I’ve read in the past few years. I actually had to stand up to read it–the highest Biblioklept endorsement there is. Yes folks–if you have to stand up to read it, it’s truly excellent stuff.

You can read the entirety of Chris Adrian’s short story “A Better Angel” here.

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