Microviews Vol. 14: Kaufman, Wilson, Tyszka

on Friday, October 28, 2011
Somehow I read a couple of happy books. How unlike me. At least I rounded it off with a suitably morose offering. So here you go litnerds; moderate your mood with one of these:

The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman
Andrew Kaufman's geektastic debut All My Friends Are Superheroes is one of those books I like to dip back into whenever I need an emotional power-up. I first bought it on a whim. I'd never heard of the author or the book. But the title spoke to my costume wearing primary school self and to this day it remains one of the most charming, funny and heartwarming little books I've ever read. Now Kaufman is back with another novella that, while not quite as great as Superheroes, has nevertheless cemented his place on my DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) list. Kicking off with the weirdest bank robbery in history - the thief, dressed something like the Scarlet Pimpernel, demands everyone's most personal sentimental item - it follows each of the victims as increasingly absurd things begin to happen in their lives. Tattoos come to life, babies shit money and the protagonist's wife begins to shrink. Imperceptably at first, then faster until she becomes the size of a thimble. The Tiny Wife is a bit more straightforward than Superheroes (it is essentially a meditation on marital discord) but Kaufman still manages to splash enough moments of pure imaginative wonder throughout its eighty-five pages to make it another useful antidote to the daily doldrums.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
The Family Fang had me at the binding. Not quite hardcover, not quite paperback, it is a format with which I can see myself becoming strangely obsessed. Then there's the cover artwork - a mix of Monty Python lettering and late-period Saramago cartoon characters. Win. So what about the book itself? The Family Fang is pretty much a primer on how to totally fuck up your kids. Camille and Caleb Fang are 'performance artists'; their art is the creation of chaos in everyday environments - elaborate, absurd practical jokes. Their kids, A (Annie) and B (Buster) are essential props in each stunt. The story jumps back and forth between descriptions of their various pranks, and the adult lives of the two kids. Annie has become an Academy Award nominated actress, prone to scandal and self-destruction. Buster is a flash-in-the-pan literary star, relegated to playing video games while he struggles with his next novel. The two are drawn back to the Fang world when their respective careers tank. But going home to mum and dad ends in disaster when Camille and Caleb disappear, suspected victims of a serial killer. Has the unthinkable truly happened or is this just another elaborate hoax, the great swansong of the Fang family? Like most comic novels, Wilson struggles to sustain the laughs, but he fills the void with large dollops of empathy and pathos. And while it doesn't quite deliver on what it first promises, The Family Fang was still one of the kindest-hearted, totally loopy books I've read this year.

The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka
There is a certain skill in being able to unnerve a reader. Ian McEwan has it down pat. So does Patrick McGrath. And then there's all those Eastern European creep-masters: Meyrink, Ungar, Walser et al. For the first half of The Sickness, I though Alberto Tyszka had joined the gang. Alas, this tale of cancer and stalking resolved so unsatisfactorily that I was left shaking my head at the waste of a brilliant setup. The Sickness is, above all else, a family tragedy; the story of a doctor who finds an aggressive brain tumour on his father's scan and struggles to find a way to break the news. Had the book just followed this line, it would have been perfectly beautiful, if very sad. However, Tyszka weaves a subplot of an obsessive hypochondriac patient, Ernesto Duran, who reacts angrily to Dr. Miranda's brush offs, until the doctor's secretary takes it upon herself to answer on his behalf. The email correspondence starts off genuinely discomforting. For a few moments it is even scary. But Tyszka does nothing with it - there is no confrontation, no crescendo. Duran just fades away. As did my interest in the ending, no matter how poignant it might objectively have been. So very, very disappointing.

Bravo as Barnes Bags A Booker!

on Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Following in the footsteps of fellow consolation Booker Prize winners Ian McEwan (should've won for Enduring Love, won for Amsterdam) and John Banville (should've won for The Untouchable, won for The Sea), Julian Barnes has finally bagged a Booker for The Sense of An Ending. Sure, it's a better book than either of the other two consolation winners but still... Flaubert's Parrot anyone? England, England?

So after all my bitching I finally have to take my hat off to Dame Stella Rimington and her panel of judges. She got it right. And she played a masterful endgame around the very idea of worthy competition to ensure it happened. Oh well, it might not be how you play cricket, but at least it didn't sully the Booker brand.

Flipped Off By Le Carre

on Tuesday, October 18, 2011
For some really strange reason I was recently overcome by the need to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre. After scouring several sections of my local bookstore to no avail I asked at the counter if it might be found somewhere that I never venture (pretty much anywhere outside the literary fiction section). Turns out the only copy they had was one of those new Flipbacks, which I'd been wanting to try out for a while anyway. Fate, it seems, is a wacky mistress.

For those unfamiliar with this weird little publishing format, it's basically a mini-book, printed vertically and designed to be held in one hand, with your thumb acting as designated page-turning digit. Perfect, so the guff goes, for reading on the train, at the dinner table, on the toilet or following an amputation. There's a whole bunch of excellent titles on offer (David Mitchell, Steven King, Melvyn Bragg, Chris Cleave) and a couple of crap ones (James Frey, David Nicholls). I opted for a well-regarded, but to me hitherto unknown quantity.

Stuffing the thing in my pocket, I was immediately seized by a crippling fear of being seen reading it. Would it make me as much of a douche as people who read on e-devices? There have been no studies; the evidence just isn't there. I may become a statistic in some academic journal!

Figuring I was, at worst, taking one for the team, I settled into a comfy chair at home and worked my hand into a suitably contorted state to read it as intended. And yep, I hated it. Now, I can't work out if it's just that I'm not loving the novel itself and am projecting on the format or if it's the other way round. Or maybe I just don't like both. I didn't get very far with science at school. I do think, however, that a more apt experiment would be reading a book I love in Flipback format and seeing how that goes. After all, I enjoyed a couple of books on the Kindle and still hated that stupid piece of plastic. So if I ever get around to it I'll report back after reading Flipback Misery. Until then I'll just grumble about the RSI in my thumb.

A Last Ditch Booker Bitch

So it's the eve of the big announcement and Stella's club of cretins are no doubt still patting themselves on the back for choosing the most popular Booker Prize shortlist ever. And by popular, they mean the highest selling. Well done. What a fabulous achievement. It's like that time the Pulitzer committee nominated Dan Brown, Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel, Lee Child and James Patterson to take home America's big one. Or when Barbara Cartland won the Nobel Prize. Oh... wait a minute.

Meh, I guess they needed to hang their hats on something after the resounding shelacking they have received. I'm just going to pretend this year never happened.

(I am also prepared to offer a mea culpa should Julian Barnes win. In true cloak and dagger style, Dame Stella will have cunningly packed the list with average books so that Barnes could finally win it with one of his lesser works. In that case, bravo!)

Microviews Vol. 13: Bolano, Houellebecq, Appelfeld

on Monday, October 17, 2011
Thought I'd take a break from ranting about prizes (hey, it's two days from Booker day so I'm just reloading the cannon) and go back to bookworm basics. So here's the latest instalment of Microviews:

Tres by Roberto Bolano
Wake up ye slaves to literary fashion, it's Bolano'clock again! Yep, just when you thought the publishing earthworms had chomped all the flesh from the great Chilean's bones they hit us with another salvo of works to stuff in the festivus stockings. Later in the year we'll have the eagerly-awaited third mega-novel, The Third Reich, but to tide us over we have Tres, his second poetry collection to be translated into English. It is well-documented that Bolano considered himself first and foremost a poet. Flicking through the pieces that make up the three cycles in this collection, I'm a little confused as to why. They're good, sure. The circular rhythms are hypnotic, the images mostly beautiful. But they read more like bite-sized pieces of prose (yes, I'm aware of the concept of prose poetry) reminiscent of Kafka's aphorisms or Thomas Berhard's brilliant Voice Imitator sequence than anything in Bolano's first collection, The Romantic Dogs. Even The Neochileans, the one 'poem' in traditional form, seems more like a short story chopped into tiny lines. This new bi-lingual edition is, however, beautiful to behold and overall Tres is a worthy addition to any Bolano collection, even for metrophobes like me.

The Map And The Territory by Michel Houellebecq
I've never really bought into the whole Cult Of Houellebecq. After the undeniably brilliant Elementary Particles (aka Atomised), he seems to have underwhelmed on a regular basis with books that might have been the toast of some literary subcultural cadre but had little substance with which to back up the hype. That might all change with The Map And The Territory, a seriously good book that managed to snare the ageing enfant a Prix Goncourt. Unsurprisingly full of Houellebecq's usual self-aggrandising pretensions, this time the author assuages our collective annoyance by killing himself off, but not before riffing on the creative process and the nature of art (particularly portraiture) itself. Centred around the relationship between artiste extraordinaire Jed Martin and the author Michel Houellebecq (quelle post modern!!) whom the former cajoles into writing the text for his latest exhibition, it shows a more mature, even funny writer grappling with his own aspirations for immortality. And just when the philosophising begins to grate, the novel takes a weird art crime twist reminiscent of George Simenon (with an embarrassingly Patricia Cornwell denouement), with Houellebecq's body found torn to shreds and Martin's portrait of him nowhere to be found. Cue police procedural. I'll avoid giving any spoilers because for once this is a Houellebecq novel that is really worth reading. Maybe he should have topped himself earlier.

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld
Aharon Appelfeld is, to my mind, the finest ever Holocaust novelist. His single-minded focus on those six years is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he has, in almost twenty novels, never written about the camps themselves. Rather, Appelfeld dwells on the margins of catastrophe with particular focus on the decay of European society immediately beforehand (Baddneheim 1939, All Whom I Have Loved, To The Land Of The Cattails, etc). When he is writing about the war itself, he chooses to view it through the lens of the escapees, the Jews who managed to avoid roundup and went into hiding. For the most part, these are the untold stories, though they are every bit as harrowing as any other. Blooms of Darkness falls into this category; the story of eleven-year old Hugo, who is entrusted by his parents to the safekeeping of a kindly prostitute. Mariana tends to Hugo by day, feeding, washing and playing with the boy, but by night she locks him in her closet while she "entertains" the German troops. Although this is not one of his better books, Appelfeld has still managed to hit upon a fascinating variation of the saviour story. The dynamic between the two is suitably tense - Hugo is approaching puberty - and there is a permanent sense of impropriety pervading the story. Eventually, human weakness prevails; prostitute and young boy cross the line. It is awkward and sad, but terribly powerful. As the novel draws to a close, the relationship is inverted - Mariana is arrested by the liberating Russian troops for aiding the Germans and Hugo attempts to become her rescuer. And although he is only a thirteen year-old kid, there is something tragic, almost pathetic about Hugo's ultimate impotence in the face of her ordeal. Blooms of Darkness is a powerful, albeit minor, work that raises many questions about the nature of rescuers. Why were some elevated to the status of the righteous gentile while others were summarily executed? It is to Appelfeld's great credit that he doesn't even attempt to offer an answer.

Transtromer (doo doo doo doo): More Than Meets The Eye

on Friday, October 7, 2011
As I'm sure you already know, Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer was named the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature with the Academy citing his "condensed, translucent images... [that give]... us fresh access to reality". Um... okay. Great. Way to go, me. Of all the unfamiliar names I could have plucked out of the Ladbrokes Nobel formguide I had to go and mock the one who eventually wins the bloody thing. Yep, contrary to my post of several hours ago, I didn't suspect he'd win, haven't read any of his stuff and most certainly won't be thanking him for my tropical island. Triple whammy!

Obviously I know nothing about the guy. Heck, I know nothing about poetry full stop so why would I? But it's nice to see a poet win given that nobody really reads the stuff and, but for the odd big prize, it's a bloody thankless pursuit. So yipee for a belated return to poetry's brief mid-90's hegemory over the Nobel. I can't wait to ignore Transtromer in the same way I conveniently forgot to brush up on Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney or Wislawa Szymborska. And as for Bob Dylan... well... I'm sure he's mumbling incoherently in the opposite direction of anyone willing to still listen to him.

PS Thanks to Adam for the awful Transformers pun...

Countdown To Distinction

on Thursday, October 6, 2011
Four hours left and the bookies have the Nobel race looking even weirder than yesterday. Check out the top ten:

Bob Dylan 5/1
Haruki Murakami 6/1
Assia Djebar 7/1
Adonis 7/1
Peter Nadas 9/1
Tomas Transtromer 12/1
Les Murray 16/1
Philip Roth 16/1
Nuruddin Farah 16/1
Ko Un 18/1

I've read 5 of them and bought a couple of Dylan records if that counts. Of course the list is a big load of crap seeing as the winner has never been drawn from the betting favourites. So don't go getting your hopes up yet Transtromer (whoever the hell you are)! Anyway, I'll be back in a few hours to register my distress/elation/bemusement and probably take the opportunity to pretend that (a) I suspected it all along, (b) I've been a fan for years, and (c) I just won a lot money on the announcement. That is unless I'm already on the tropical island that I intend to buy with the takings.

PS I'm chucking Obama into the mix. He's written two good books and the Academy like giving him accolades in advance so it's not totally out of the question. He will also be a more deserving winner than Elfriede Jelinek (no, I won't stop harping on about her).

PPS Could they maybe just give it to Les Murray already, if only to stop the Australian press's annual blab about him being in serious contention? It's getting silly now.

Roast Swede: A Riff On The Literary Nobelity

on Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Two days til the big Nobel announcement and yet again I find myself in a state of apoplexy. Will it go to a writer long-celebrated in the wider world a la Chinua Achebe, Haruki Murakami or Umberto Eco? Will it be a lesser known, but highly deserving writer from far afield a la Nurrudin Farrah, Antonio Lobos Antunes or Peter Nadas? Could the great anti-imperial trend finally end with those stuffy Swedes conceding that American writers like Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Cormac McCarthy, Don Delillo and E. L. Doctorow are, at the very least, worthy of consideration? Or will it just go to another ho-hum forgettable like Elfriede Jelinek?

Interestingly, Ladbrokes has Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said) as favourite and - get ready for this - Bob Dylan as number two. I assume they mean Bob Dylan the fiery troubador of old, not the more recent boring fuddy-duddy mumbler who embarrasses himself every time he staggers on to a stage. For my part I'd love to see it go to Milan Kundera, William H. Gass, Margaret Atwood or Ismail Kadare. And yet I have this sinking feeling I'm gonna be bitching about J. K. Rowling on Friday... Brace yourselves folks!