First World Reading Problems Vol. 2: The DEARsaster

on Tuesday, August 27, 2013
DEARsaster (n): Existential angst and anxiety caused by the surprise release of a new book by one of your favourite authors whilst in the middle of a long and/or dense book you are really enjoying.

So I'm taking my usual Monday mid-morning procrastination stroll through a local bookstore when KABLAM!!! I'm blindsided by the new Margaret Atwood novel MADDADDAM. I knew it was coming out sometime soon - September? Christmas? 2017? - but it never really occurred to me that she'd catch me so very unawares. It's as if the genetically modified pig on the cover flew it express onto the bookshelves just to screw with my perfectly ordered reading life. Now I can't say I was the greatest fan of the first two parts of her post-Apocalyptic trilogy (Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood), but c'mon... she is, to paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson, Margaret Friggin' Atwood, a true living legend whose body of incredibly varied work has landed her firmly on the Drop Everything And Read list. What's more, MADDADDAM is in hardcover! That's like book crack for me! True to form, I do the sensible thing any addict would do - despite having it on order from overseas, I pick it up here. Support the local book trade, yadda yadda yadda (Read: major delayed gratification fail).

One problem. I'm midway through a debut novel that I am thoroughly enjoying but that, despite only being 300 pages long, is taking me an inordinate amount of time to finish. Usually I'd polish something that length off in one to two days tops. La Vida Doble by Arturo Fontaine, however, is different. It demands to be savoured, which is precisely what I've been doing for the past week. I'm not going to give much away until I'm done and have some time to properly digest it, save only to say that it's one of the best novels of Chile's Dirty War that I've ever read (I seem to be saying that a lot lately).

So here's the dilemma, and the very essence of the DEARsaster: Do I put down a book I'm loving for an author I've sworn to drop everything to read?

I suppose there's an easy solution in trying to read the two simultaneously. I'm often reading two, three, even four books at once. In this case, however, I can't help but feel it would be an injustice to both if I tried (plus, I'm technically already reading the first volume of the Javier Marias trilogy and the collected short stories of Terry Pratchett). The absurdist in me can't help wanting to try the left-brain/right-brain challenge and literally read both at the same time; one in each hand, one eye on each book. Tempting. Or I could run around in circles as if this is the most ginormously catastrophic problem in the world right now. Clearly I have chosen option three.

As you can tell, I don't profess to have the answer but God knows I need one soon. My poor little legs have grown accustomed to my sedentary life. Please... please don't make me run anymore.

Happy National Bookstore Day!!!

on Saturday, August 10, 2013
"He walked among the bookstore shelves, hearing Muzak in the air. There were rows of handsome covers, prosperous and assured. He felt a fine excitement, hefting a new book, fitting hand over sleek spine, seeing lines of type jitter past his thumb as he let the pages fall. He was a young man, shrewd in his fervors, who knew there were books he wanted to read and others he absolutely had to own, the ones that gesture in special ways, that have a rareness or daring, a charge of heat that stains the air around them."
- Don Delillo, Mao II

"Jake went in, aware that he had, for the first time in three weeks, opened a door without hoping madly to find another world on the other side. A bell jingled overhead. The mild, spicy smell of old books hit him, and the smell was somehow like coming home"
- Stephen King, The Waste Lands

Now get off your computer and buy some books!

Microviews Vol. 37: Kiddy Kafka And The Commie Carcass

on Friday, August 9, 2013
Mr. Theodore Mundstock by Ladislav Fuks
Ten years ago I stumbled across this absurd delight of a novel in a small Czech bookstore and instantly fell in love. Set in wartime Prague, it tells the story of an elderly man of questionable sanity, who sets up a mock concentration camp in his apartment to acclimatise to his ultimate fate. Sound strange? That's just the beginning. Accompanied only by his shadow (both greek chorus and devil's advocate) and some weird bird-like creature, he lays out a wooden board, practises stockpiling scraps of food and simulates assaults by over-zealous camp guards. He also acts as self-appointed bringer-of-hope to those around him, promising his neighbours that they need not fear deportation as the war will end before 'the Spring". It is as sad as it is calculated. Is he just mad or do these baseless promises help the others survive? Mr. Theodore Mundstock is one of the best, albeit, strangest novels I have read. With generous scoops of both comedy and tragedy, it confronts very difficult issues of morality and honesty in times of crisis, all the while questioning what amounts to rational action when the entire framework of rationality has collapsed.
5 Out Of 5 Attic Prisons

My First Kafka by Matthue Roth
Franz Kafka's short stories are, to my mind, the greatest fairytales ever written for adults. Kudos to the rather warped imagination of Matthue Roth then for rendering them so brilliantly into a form that can be enjoyed by children too. Roth has taken three of Kafka's tales - Josephine the Singer, The Metamorphosis and Excursion Into The Mountains - and rewritten them in short verse. And while he might have trimmed away the verbiage, he has most certainly retained all that makes ol' Franz so damn great. Accompanied by exquisite woodcut illustrations by Rohan Daniel Eason that call to mind the traditional Day of The Dead stylings of Grim Fandango (one of my favourite computer games of all time), albeit in relief, this slim volume will no doubt serve as the perfect introduction to the 20th century's most iconic writer. I only hope this is the first in a series - I'm already putting in my request for In The Penal Settlement, The Hunger Artist and Before The Law.
4.5 Out Of 5 Bogeyman Beetles

The Reprisal by Laudomina Bonanni
A ragtag bunch of fascist Italian militia capture a pregnant woman in the last days of World War 2. Convinced that she is a resistance fighter, they put her to trial in a barn, convict her and pass sentence: Death. However, before they can carry it out they are joined by a young priest who convinces them to wait until the baby arrives. Much of the tension of Bonanni's supposed lost classic arises from the ensuing wait. Will the war end before the baby comes? Will the woman be executed? Is she even a resistance fighter? There is so much about this book that I ought to have loved and yet I just couldn't get into it. Bonanni turns a great story into a dry chore of a book. I guess there's a reason some classics are lost.
2.5 Out Of 5 Partisan Patsies

Therese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac
This grinding tale of a woman who attempts to murder her husband to escape the confines of genteel life must have been a sensation when it was published back in the late 1920s. Mauriac doesn't have many nice things to say about the French upper crust - the family rallies behind Therese but only to protect their own reputation and, when she is released, they practically keep her under house arrest so that she doesn't spoil an upcoming family celebration. Unfortunately this book, which played a large part in Mauriac receiving the Nobel Prize in 1952, hasn't aged well. The tone is dour and the prose stuffy. Sure, it's an enlightening glimpse into a particular period, but beyond that it's little more than a mere historical curio.
2.5 Out Of 5 Liaisons Dangereuses

The Banner of The Passing Clouds by Anthea Nicholson
Granta kicks yet another goal with this complex story of Communist and post-communist Georgia. The initial conceit is fascinating in itself - a boy born on the day Stalin dies, given his exact name (Iosif Dzhugashvili) in tribute, grows up with the ghost of the former leader residing in his chest. Strangely, the Stalin schtick quietens as the novel gives way to an intriguing story of Communist-era pop culture and the desire to escape. Iosif's brother hooks up with his crush, the two become the biggest pop band in the country then get done for trying to hijack a plane to cross the border into freedom. Whether or not they are guilty (they are, but the guns were fake and all fatalities were caused by the 'rescuers') is of little relevance. They are tried, convicted and punished, though Iosif is not told of their fate. They simply disappear, pending appeal. Nicholson's depiction of the crushing machinery of injustice and the personal toll it takes on Iosif is harrowing. Interstingly, The Banner of The Passing Clouds is not just an indictment on the Communist regime. Life after the disintegration of the USSR isn't exactly the promised land for which Iosif had hoped. A beautiful, tragic debut.
4 Out Of 5 Siberian Gulags

A Guided Tour Through The Museum of Communism by Slavenka Drakulic
There must be countless ways to write history but Slavenka Drakulic's is undoubtedly one of the strangest. A bestiary of creatures narrates this compendium of short lessons about life behind the Iron Curtain. Some are the leaders' pets, some outcasts in ruined cities, some possibly even murderers. The 'stories' really work when the animal is not merely recounting historical facts and figures but, rather, finding themselves immersed in the absurdities of life under Communist rule. Two in particular stand out. The mole's take on Berlin self-consciously invokes Kafka with its combination of despair and wonder (not to mention that it is presented as an address to a symposium of moles). Also the final story of a mysterious raven in Albania is creepy and allegorical - the only time when a human is actually telling the story and, perhaps, the animal is merely a code for a sinister player in the suicide (or perhaps murder) of Mehmet Shehu. Drakulic isn't on a complete rampage here either; like Anthea Nicholson she is quite openly critical about life after Communism in many of the countries. You'd be hard pressed to find a better introduction to the topic.
3.5 Out Of 5 Animal Farms

Microviews Vol. 36: Where All The Missing Socks Go (Neither The Wild West Nor A Galaxy Far, Far Away)

on Monday, August 5, 2013
The Son by Philip Meyer
Here's the thing with "The Great American Novel". People are too quick to slap on the sobriquet, thereby effectively kneecapping its recipient. So put your hands together for the latest Great American Novel to hit the shelves. Epic in scope (and pages), The Son is a multi-generational tale of one pilgrim family's progress from the frontier to genteel society. Often brutal, seldom flattering, it lays bare the sins of white America's past and, to a lesser extent, present. Meyer tracks the family through three characters - Eli McCullough, his son Peter and Peter's grand-niece Jeannie. The latter two are engaging enough - Peter partakes in a massacre of his Mexican neighbours then shacks up with the sole survivor, Jeannie struggles to keep control of the McCullough oil empire while her mind slips away. Yet it is Eli's tale, from his kidnap by Commanche Indians at thirteen, through his training as a brave and later repatriation into white society that really makes this book worth reading. Filled with passages that would make Cormac McCarthy blush, Eli's thread would in itself have made the case for Meyer entering the greater canon. Unfortunately, the other two threads pale next to it and only serve to dilute the overall experience. As it stands, The Son is a regular length masterpiece hiding within the pages of a very good, very long book.
4 Out of 5 Pretty Horses

Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Lolita didn't become a classic because of its graphic description of Humbert Humbert jacking off at every possible opportunity over the idea (and later the person) of a little girl. Seems Alissa Nutting missed the memo because this tawdry affair (pun semi-intended) lacks the depth, psychological complexity and beautiful subtlety of Nabokov's masterpiece. Leaving its lasciviousness aside, Celeste is one of the least believable characters in contemporary literature and the plot holes that Nutting creates to allow her to fulfil her sick desires are so big that I suspect every sock ever lost in a dryer in the history of the world could fit inside. To be fair, Tampa has one redeeming feature: the jacket design is incredible Otherwise, this is an embarrassing disaster of a novel. If your interest has been piqued by the hype, read Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal or Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal instead.
1.5 Out Of 5 Bargain Bins

My Father's Ghost Is Climbing In The Rain by Patricio Pron
Pron brings fresh Bolano stylings to the Dirty War in this deeply affecting, pleasantly surprising novel. What begins as a son's homecoming to care for his dying father quickly becomes a personal investigation into the investigation of a murder. Neither the who, why or howdunnit matters, but rather what made the narrator's father take such a special interest in the case. I was expecting a typical Music Box-type denouement, but Pron is far smarter and more compassionate than that. The answer lies not in complicity but survivor's guilt, making My Father's Ghost... a truly original, powerful addition to the body of literature on one of modern history's most troubling periods.
3.5 Out Of 5 Shiny Epaulettes

William Shakespeare's Star Wars by Ian Doescher
Verily go thou nerdgasm. Doth Ian Doescher fancy himself a modern Francis Bacon or Chritopher Marlowe? Alak alak. Tis' but a blip on yonder radar for, while a good idea this might seem at first, a crime against good sense it turns out to be. Did Doescher listen not to the great Yoda? Doeth or Doeth not, there is no try. Better he did not. Beep Beep Woooow saith the R2 unit.
2.5 Out Of 5 Death Stars

Two Novellas by David Vogel
Following my delight in the discovery of Vogel's Viennese Romance I was very excited to see this sitting on the table at my local bookstore. Needless to say, I snapped it up immediately, dragged back in the shingle, and disappeared for a few hours. It was not the sublime reading experience I had been hoping for. The first novella, In The Sanatorium, has an oddly Monty Pythonesque edge, with its blackly comic tale of a hypochondiac in a clinic for people with TB. As the predicaments grew more dire, and the characters more jolly, I couldn't help but sing the great refrain to "Always look on the bright side of life". The second novella, Facing The Sea, is a much more ordinary affair. Despite an air of decadence that brings to mind both Fitzgerald and Huysmans, I just couldn't take to the couple struggling with their fidelity while holidaying on some wanky beach. I was hoping for Mr. Ripley to make an appearance, if only to stick a knife or seven into the decadent posers.
3 Out Of 5 Iron Lungs