The Pink Hotel (Book Acquired, 4.02.2013)

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The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard is new from Picador. Their blurb:

A raucous, drug-fueled party has taken over a boutique hotel on Venice Beach—it’s a memorial for Lily, the now-deceased, free-spirited proprietress of the place. Little do the attendees know that Lily’s estranged daughter—and the nameless narrator of this striking novel—is among them, and she has just walked off with a suitcase of Lily’s belongings.

Abandoned by Lily many years ago, she has come a long way to learn about her mother, and the stolen suitcase—stuffed with clothes, letters, and photographs—contains not only a history of her mother’s love life, but perhaps also the key to her own identity. As the tough, resourceful narrator tracks down her mother’s former husbands, boyfriends, and acquaintances, a risky reenactment of her life begins to unfold. Lily had a knack for falling in love with the wrong people, and one man, a fashion photographer turned paparazzo, has begun to work his sinuous charms on the young woman.

Told with high style and noirish flare, Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel is a powerfully evocative debut novel about wish fulfillment, reckless impulse, and how we discover ourselves.

Excerpt:

Her bedroom reeked of cigarette ash and stale perfume. Two ashtrays were packed with lipstick-stained filters as if she’d just popped out for another pack. A suspender belt hung from a chest of drawers, a mink scarf was curled like roadkill at the floor next to her bed. A mirror opposite the bed reflected an image of me lying fully clothed and out of place on the crinkled sheets. My haircut and body could have been that of a boy, but my oversized eyes made me look like a Gothic Virgin Mary from a museum postcard. I wore a sweat-stained T-shirt and a pair of navy-blue tracksuit bottoms. My skin still smelt faintly of grease and coffee from Dad’s café in London, but now the smell was mingled with dehydrated aeroplane air and smog from Los Angeles traffic.

Read the rest of the excerpt.

 

Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge Is an Elegant Collection of Creepy Intertextual Tales

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In Yoko Ogawa’s new collection Revenge, eleven stories of fascinating morbidity intertwine at oblique angles. Tale extends into tale: characters, settings, and images float intertextually from chapter to chapter, layering and reticulating themes of death, crime, consumption, and creation. (And revenge, of course. Let’s not forget revenge). Not quite a story cycle or a novel-in-tales, Revenge’s sum is nevertheless greater than its parts. It’s a brisk, engaging read, and as I worked my way to the final story, I already anticipated returning to the beginning to pull at the motifs threading through the book.

The book’s dominant motifs of death and food arrive in the first tale, “Afternoon Bakery,” where a mother tries to buy strawberry shortcakes for her dead son’s birthday—only the baker is too busy bawling to attend to sales. We learn why this baker is crying in “Fruit Juice,” the second story, a tale that ends inexplicably with an abandoned post office full of kiwi fruit. The third story, “Old Mrs.  J” (one of Revenge’s stand-outs) perhaps answers where those kiwis came from. More importantly, “Old Mrs. J,” with its writer-protagonist, elegantly introduces the thematic textual instability of the collection. There’s a  haunting suspicion here that the characters who glide from one tale to the next aren’t necessarily the silent extras they seem to be on the surface. Our characters, background and fore, are doppelgängers, ghost writers, phantoms.

The penultimate tale “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” lays the ghosting bare. Its protagonist is a magazine writer, whose “articles” really amount to little more than advertising. Staying at a seaside resort, he’s pestered by an old woman, one of the many witches who haunt Revenge. The old woman claims to be a novelist, and points out one of her books in the resort’s library:

Later, in my room, I read ‘Afternoon at the Bakery.’ It was about a woman who goes to buy a birthday cake for her dead son. That was the whole story. I should have gone back to my article, but I read her novel through twice, finishing for the second time at 3:00 a.m. The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot an characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.

The final line is perhaps a description of Revenge’s haunting intertextual program—although to be clear, Ogawa’s plot and characters are hardly “unremarkable,” and her prose, in Stephen Snyder’s English translation, is lucid and descriptive. It’s the “icy current running under her words” that makes Ogawa’s tales stick so disconcertingly in the reader’s psychic gullet. And if her prose is at times “unremarkable,” it’s all in the service of creating a unifying tone. All eleven tales are narrated in first-person, and each narrator is bound to the limits of his or her own language.

These limitations of language bump up against the odd, the spectacular, the alien, as in “Sewing for the Heart”:

She had explained that she was born with her heart outside of her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine.

The line is wonderful in its mundane trajectory: Our narrator, an artisan bagmaker, witnesses this woman who lives with her heart outside her chest and concedes that such a thing might be “difficult . . . to imagine”! There’s something terribly paltry in this, but it’s also purposeful and controlled: Here we find the real in magical realism.

But this bagmaker can imagine, as we see in an extraordinary passage that moves from the phenomenological world of sight and sound and into the realm of our narrator’s strange desires:

She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face, and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into one another, bone on bone . . . her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.

Painful and utterly beautiful: Another description of Revenge.

Sometimes the matter-of-fact tone of the stories accounts for marvelous little eruptions of humor, as in “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger”:

At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed that I had attempted suicide.

The scene is simultaneously devastating and hilarious, an evocation of abyssal depression coupled with mordant irony. The scene also underscores the dramatic uncertainty that underpins so many of the tales, where the possibility that the narrator is in fact a ghost or merely a character in someone else’s story is always in play.

There’s no postmodern gimmickry on display here though. Ogawa weaves her tales together with organic ease, her control both powerful and graceful. Her narrators contradict each other; we’re offered perspectives, glimpses, shades and slivers of meaning. A version of events recounted differently several stories later seems no more true than an earlier version, but each new detail adds to the elegant tangle. Like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño, Ogawa traffics in beautiful, venomous, bizarre dread. Like those artists, she offers a discrete world we sense is complete and unified, even as our access to it is broken and discontinuous. And like Angela Carter, Ogawa channels the icy current seething below the surface of our darkest fairy tales, those stories that, with their sundry murders and crimes, haunt readers decades after first readings.

What I like most about Revenge is its refusal to relieve the reader. The book can be grisly at times, but Ogawa rarely goes for the lurid image. Instead, the real horror (and pleasure) of Revenge is the anxiety it produces in the reader, who becomes implicated in the crimes cataloged in the text. Witness to first-person narratives that often omit key clues, the reader plays detective—or perhaps accomplice. Recommended.

Revenge is new in handsome trade paperback from Picador; Picador also released Ogawa’s novel Hotel Iris in 2010.

New in Trade Paperback from Picador (Books Acquired Some Time Last Month)

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Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke is the second entry in a proposed trilogy about the opium trade. (The first was 2008’s Sea of Poppies). Here’s Picador’s blurb:

In Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, the Ibis began its treacherous journey across the Indian Ocean, bound for the cane fields of Mauritius with a cargo of indentured servants. Now, in River of Smoke, the former slave ship flounders in the Bay of Bengal, caught in the midst of a deadly cyclone.  The storm also threatens the clipper ship Anahita, groaning with the largest consignment of opium ever to leave India for Canton. Meanwhile, the Redruth, a nursery ship, carries horticulturists determined to track down the priceless botanical treasures of China. All will converge in Canton’s Fanqui-town, or Foreign Enclave, a powder keg awaiting a spark to ignite the Opium Wars. A spectacular adventure, but also a bold indictment of global avarice, River of Smoke is a consuming historical novel with powerful contemporary resonance.

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Jacques Strauss’s debut novel The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. got a good review from John Self, which is worth a read—Self does a marvelous job expressing the trepidation and wariness—and yes, prejudice—that some of us might have toward contemporary novels.

Here’s Picador’s blurb:

Above all, The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. is funny; both witty and ironic. Jack hates to be reminded that Susie “didn’t stay with us because she loved me … She stayed with us because it was her job.” The irony is that to stop her being their servant, to give her her freedom, he may end up having to do something terrible to her. Around all this cultural specificity, more general principles are touched on (“one could only conclude that humanity, rather than a ballast against the arbitrary, was … its very agent”) which feed back into the story.

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Here are the epigraphs to Paul La Farge’s novel Luminous Airplanes, via the book’s site, which is worth checking out:

We hope it will not be unconsidered, that we find no open tract, or constant manduction in this Labyrinth; but are oft-times fain to wander in the America and untravelled parts of Truth.

— Thomas Browne

Nothing odd will do long.

— Samuel Johnson

Ein schönes Protokoll. Ein nie bevor gesehenes Protokoll.

— Werner Herzog

…but the path of what happened is so brightly lit that it places everything else more deeply in shadow.

— The 9/11 Commission Report

The truth, fellow UFOlogists, is that I have known precisely what I was doing all along. It is just that very few other people knew what I was doing.

— William L. Moore

Run!

— Hal Hartley

I Riff on Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Which I Haven’t Read (Book Acquired, 8.22.2012)

 

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1. Jeffrey Eugenides’s third novel The Marriage Plot is out in paperback from Picador this month. I haven’t read it.

2. I like the cover, a sort of watercolor job on thick textured paper.

3. I read Eugenides’s first novel The Virgin Suicides in 1997 or 1998. I was a freshman or sophomore in college. It was one of those books that everyone had on their shelves (I read my girlfriend’s roommate’s copy in maybe two sittings). I recall liking its style but the story had no emotional impact on me.

I was suspicious of the talent everyone ascribed to Eugenides.

4. I bought Eugenides’s second novel Middlesex in a train station in Rome. I bought it because I needed something to read. I read most of it on trains. This was the summer of 2005 or 2006, I think.

5. Middlesex is one of the first novels I can think of that I read and thought, “Here is a writer trying to fool me. Here is a writer trying to hide a fairly predictable plot under a mask of thematic importance. Here is a writer trying to hide mundane and often clunky prose beneath relevant issues. Here is an author trying to hide a lack of penetrating insight beneath the dazzle of historical sweep.”

6. Middlesex: The seams show. It’s literary-fiction-as-genre. And I have no problem with that. I wish it was weirder.

7. Here’s the back cover blurb for The Marriage Plot:

It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes—the charismatic and intense Leonard Bankhead, and her old friend the mystically inclined Mitchell Grammaticus. As all three of them face life in the real world they will have to reevaluate everything they have learned.

8. I sort of feel like I’ve already read the novel after reading this. Or maybe I feel like I could guess the trajectory of the novel.

9. Okay, so maybe I should read the first few pages . . .

10. I stopped on page 11, at this paragraph:

The cafe had just opened. The guy behind the counter, who was wearing Elvis Costello glasses, was rinsing out the espresso machine. At a table against the wall, a girl with stiff pink hair was smoking a clove cigarette and reading Invisible Cities. “Tainted Love” played from the stereo on top of the refrigerator.

Espresso! Cloves! Soft Cell! Calvino! Costello!

Okay. Maybe it’s Gloria Jones’s version of “Tainted Love.”

Anyway. There’s something insufferable about the paragraph.

I suppose I need to name or define the “something.”

11. Let me backtrack then, to the first paragraphs of the novel, to its first line even: “To start with, look at all the books.”

I like that as an opening line. I do. And I don’t mind an intertextual read. I’ll even accept this opening gambit as a form of characterization for our heroine Madeleine—this listing of authors—Wharton, Henry James, “a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope” (a smidgen!), “good helpings of Austen, George Eliot” etc. etc. We learn she reads Collette “on the sly” (who is stopping her?).

The references pile up: The surroundings of College Hill are compared to a “Charles Addams cartoon or a Lovecraft story”; those damn RISD kids are “blaring Patti Smith”; Madeleine has borrowed her roommate’s Betsey Johnson dress; you might recognize Madeleine by her “Katherine Hepburn-ish cheekbones and jawline”; etc.

For, fun, let me pick three pages at random:

On page 75, we find out that someone named Dinky is “a frosted blonde with late-de Kooning teeth.”

Page 187 is clean.

Page 87: Roland Barthes. Harpo Marx. Grolsch beer.

(I can’t help but skim over 86, a motherlode: Kafka, Borges, Musil, Vanity FairThe Sorrows of Young Werther, Derrida).

12. Erudition in a novel can be a fine thing, and works that explicitly reference and engage other works can be marvelous (Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is an easy example to go to here). But references can also be used lazily as placeholders for real meaning, or even as a substitution for an entire milieu. (This is what I mean by the “something insufferable,” re: point 10).

13. There seems to be a trend in genre-bound “literary fiction” novels (again, I mean literary-fiction-as-genre) that lazily tie themselves to another, greater novel, without actually adding to the themes. I’m thinking explicitly of Franzen trying to borrow some of the weight of War and Peace in Freedom and Chad Harbach’s bid for Moby-Dick comparisons in The Art of Fielding. My intuition is that Eugenides is doing the same thing in The Marriage Plot.

14. Of course I’m probably (improbably enough) not the ideal audience for The Marriage Plot, not despite the fact but because of the fact that I happen to dig Talking Heads and Derrida and Barthes and literary theory &c. A romcom that involves a semiotics seminar as a setting is especially unappealing to me.

My wife, on the other hand, snapped up the copy of The Marriage Plot that the kind people at Picador sent me. I had to pull it from her night stand to write this riff. I’ll get her reaction down the line, which will certainly be more informed than my own.

 

Books Acquired, 8.10.2012 — Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador

 

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New stuff from Picador this month.

This is the one my wife gravitated to:

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Lives Other Than My Own, by Emmanuel Carrere. Blurb:

In Sri Lanka, a tsunami sweeps a child out to sea, her grandfather helpless against the onrushing water. In France, a woman dies from cancer, leaving her husband and small children bereft. What links these two catastrophes is the presence of Emmanuel Carrère, who manages to find consolation and even joy as he immerses himself in lives other than his own. The result is a heartrending narrative of endless love, a meditation on courage in the face of adversity, and an intimate look at the beauty of ordinary lives.

 I guess Picador have a new edition of Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree coming out. The book is 12 years old and seems kind of out of date:

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Do you know about Matt Taibbi’s agon with Thomas Friedman. He’s rough, I tell you, rough.

 

Book Shelves #30, 7.21.2012

 

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Book shelves series #30, thirtieth Sunday of 2012

See a full length shot of this book shelf (or don’t).

Lots of publication series editions here, including this batch of Melville House Art of the Contemporary Novella:

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I reviewed most of these and they’re all very good—especially Sandokan.

Some ratty ratty Penguin Classics that I procured from various institutions I won’t name here. The Mallory was a particular obsession for a few years:

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The Rousseau Coloring Book was a gift from a friend to our daughter, but I stole it and put it up here.

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I reviewed all of Picador’s BIG IDEAS // small books series; I actually got a new one, Privacy, in the mail the other day. Violence and  Humiliation are particularly good.

Next to those: various World of Art series books, most of them my wife’s. (Bonus points if you guess mine correctly):

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I have no idea why these books are grouped here like this; I’m guessing they were all in the same box when we moved. I know we have multiple copies of several of these:

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There’s a basket with a Klee book and some mini umbrellas and other stuff, not pictured, and then this lot on the end, including to “Introducing” books that are remainders from my freshman year of college; they are terrible and I should get rid of them. I stole this edition of The Stranger from my high school in the 10th or 11th grade. The Chronicles of Narnia box set was a gift from my aunt when I was like seven or eight:

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Books Acquired, 6.25.2012—Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month

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A nice stack from the good folks at Picador this month, including two new entries in their ongoing Nadine Gordimer reissues. I like the design on the series:

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There’s also a reissue of Denis Johnson’s 1991 novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which I haven’t read, but will read soon, because Johnson is just one of those writers I’ll end up reading everything by eventually. From a 1991 NYT review of the novel:

There has never been any doubt about Denis Johnson’s ability to write a gorgeous sentence. The author of “Angels,” “Fiskadoro” and “The Stars at Noon” has become increasingly musical in his prose, and his latest novel, “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man,” depends on such sentences as the primary unit of narrative motion. The novel seems, like a poem, to be written line to line. It is very much a book about one man, one sensibility.

At the outset of the novel, Leonard English, driving to the tip of Cape Cod in the off season, stops for a drink, then spins out of control, running his car onto a traffic island. He ends up taking a taxi to his destination, which is Provincetown. He has attempted suicide before the book’s beginning; now he is moving to the Cape to work for Ray Sands, a private investigator who also owns a small radio station. When we can see him most clearly, English seems very similar to the narrator of the short story — drifting, guilty, in a world of strangers, striving to connect with another person and with his God.

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Last year’s With Liberty and Justice for Some is out now in trade paperback. If you are even slightly familiar Glenn Greenwald’s columns at Salon, you’ll likely know what to expect. For those of us predisposed to agree with his analyses, With Liberty and Justice for Some is likely to inspire outrage and a certain kind of fatigue.

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Here’s an excerpt from an interview between Harper’s Scott Horton and Greenwald:

American history is suffused with violations of equality before the law. The country was steeped in such violations at its founding. But even when this principle was being violated, its supremacy was also being affirmed: resoundingly and unanimously in the case of the founders. That the rule of law—not the rule of men—would reign supreme was one of the few real points of agreement among all the founders. Arguably it was the primary one.

There’s an obvious element of hypocrisy in this fact; espousing a principle that one simultaneously breaches in action is hypocrisy’s defining attribute. But there’s also a more positive side: the country’s vigorous embrace of the principle of equality before law enshrined it as aspiration. It became the guiding precept for how “progress” was understood, for how the union would be perfected.

And the most significant episodes of progress over the next two centuries—the emancipation of slaves, the ending of Jim Crow, the enfranchisement and liberation of women, vastly improved treatment for Native Americans and gay Americans—were animated by this ideal. That happened because “blind justice”—equality before law—was orthodoxy in American political culture. The principle was sacrosanct even when it was imperfectly applied.

The Ford pardon of Nixon changed that, radically and permanently. When President Ford went on national television to explain to an angry, skeptical citizenry why the most powerful political actor would be fully immunized for the felonies he got caught committing, Ford expressly rejected the rule of law. He paid lip service to its core principle—the “law is no respecter of persons”—but then tacked on a newly concocted amendment designed to gut that principle: “but the law is a respecter of reality.”

In other words, if—in the judgment of political leaders—it’s sufficiently disruptive, divisive, or distracting to hold powerful political officials accountable under the law on equal terms with ordinary Americans, then they should be exempt and the rule of law suspended, all in the name of political harmony, of “moving on.” But of course, it willalways be divisive and distracting, by definition, to prosecute the most powerful political leaders, so Ford’s rationale, predictably, created a template for elite immunity.

The rationale for Ford’s pardon of Nixon was subsequently legitimized, and it created a precedent for shielding the most powerful elites from the consequences of their lawbreaking. The arguments Ford offered are the same ones now hauled out over and over whenever it is time to argue why the most powerful among us should not be held accountable: It’s not just for the good of the immunized criminal, but in the common good, to Look Forward, Not Backward. This direct assault on the rule of law was pioneered by the pardon of Richard Nixon.

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Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies is a Swedish novel in English Translation by Sarah Death. Look, I’m generally dismissive of Holocaust fiction because 1) the sheer number of books that come in to Biblioklept World Headquarters that use the Holocaust as a milieu and 2) the tacky and generally lazy way that such books often attempt to manipulate their audiences. Still, The Emperor of Lies seems like it’s probably a sight better than most such books, and it’s gotten generally good reviews, including this one from The Independent (UK), which apparently thinks that a book review of five sentences is fine:

Any writer – let alone one from neutral Sweden – who sets out to place another brick in the vast wall of Holocaust fiction must be deluded or inspired. Astonishing to report: Sem-Sandberg belongs in the tiny second band.

Utterly involving, morally scrupulous, written with a verve and pace that belie its dreadful setting, The Emperor of Lies – in Sarah Death’s masterly translation – really does renew the genre.

Its portrait of resistance and survival in the ghetto of Lodz between 1940 and 1944 focuses on the monstrous enigma of Chaim Rumkowski, despotic overlord of his fellow-Jews. Sem-Sandberg catches his capricious charisma. Other characters, who record their fate or fight it, also shine, while their tragic destiny moves on at mesmerising speed.