Pencils for Joyce, Matzoh for Kafka: Tales from the Great Centenarians

on Saturday, November 30, 2013
Years ago I had the great privilege of meeting a legend on the antiquarian book circuit, Charles Traylen. I arrived at his house in Guildford, eager to be in the presence of the man who, as a child, had sold pencils to James Joyce. Our appointed meeting time came and went. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, after almost an hour he turned up in high spirits, apologising that he had been waylaid "at the church". Now, I'm not sure where he prayed, but it clearly had a fine supply of sacramental wine. We chatted for an hour or so, during which he regaled me with one hilarious anecdote after another. At over a hundred, he had built up a fair few. As the sun began to set, I made my way back to London, having purchased a lovely illustrated collection of Poe's stories. It was the cheapest thing on offer and I needed to make it at least seem like I was there for business.

Sadly, Traylen died a few years later. There aren't many left like him.

And that's why I have a real soft spot for Alice Herz-Sommer. I haven't actually met her. And she isn't a figure in the literary world per se. She is best known as the oldest living Holocaust survivor. That alone is amazing. But it's her stories about pre-War Europe, with the likes of Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler that are a special added treat for those of us born into a world without such creative supernovas. It's not like me to link to other blogs or articles but this really spoke to me. Read (and watch) some of her story here. It's a nice counterbalance to the general shittiness of the world.

Microviews Vol. 44: Flippin' The Good Lord Bird at the Firing Squad

on Monday, November 25, 2013
Saving Mozart by Raphael Jerusalmy
Ailing music critic Otto Steiner has somehow managed to avoid being outed as a Jew. While the war rages around him, he is tucked away at a sanatorium, slowly dying of tuberculosis. Through his diary (interspersed with a couple of letters to his son who has escaped to Palestine) we come to appreciate the general ennui of a great mind left to rot. His observations of everyday life are peppered with moments of vigour and vitriol - a chance to kill Hitler comes and goes, he rages against the Nazis' misappropriation of his beloved music - but it is his sense of impotence that is most palpable. As Steiner's strength fades and the sanatorium gives way to a hospital for injured soldiers, he prepares for one great act of rebellion. It will, in the scheme of things, mean nothing but in a totalitarian state, where the essence of humanity is being squeezed from its people, rebellion for its own sake might be the only way to save your soul. An immensely powerful book told with economy and heart.
4 Out of 5 Requiems

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Now that he's bagged a National Book Award, James McBride must be splashing around in a veritable sea of adulation. Unfortunately, fireworks of this kind (if I may continue piling on the metaphors) tend to produce a lot of smoke that obscures the actual work from view. Such is the case with The Good Lord Bird, a sassy, fun and vibrant slice of historical Americana, but one a little lacking in real substance. Don't get me wrong, this story of a young slave boy freed and mistaken for a girl by batshit crazy abolitionist Old John Brown is a great read. McBride absolutely nails his narrator's peculiar patter. He also manages some glorious set pieces, particularly the disastrous fight scenes. You really gotta feel for poor John Brown, starry eyed at the prospect of success, being left out to dry by those who promise to help. At its deepest, The Good Lord Bird is a fascinating portrait of the divisions that marked American society as the abolition movement got going. But for the most part it's just a rollicking adventure full of booze and guns and trains. Again, not a bad thing at all, but not exactly the Great American Novel.
3.5 Out Of 5 Broken Chains

The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees
Ten years after Nihad Sirees penned The Silence and the Roar this novel of corruption, claustrophobia and oppression remains an amazingly urgent portrait of life in Syria. Fathi Chin, a literary young gun, is arrested one day after trying to stop the police beating up a student. Down the rabbit hole he goes - sucked into a grinding bureaucracy set up to silence dissent and turn its brightest stars into pamphleteers for the dictator. Chin's will is assailed from all sides: professionally, personally, sexually, but it is not until one of the leading generals draws his mother into the maelstrom that things become unbearable. It is very easy to call The Silence and the Roar Kafkaesque but these aren't hidden machinations crushing the young author. The state bears its fangs for all to see, with neither thought nor care about being exposed. All the more then is the horror. A minor masterpiece.
4.5 Out Of 5 Poisoned Pens

The Dance of Genghis Cohn by Romain Gary
Buckle up, Holocaust purists, you ain't gonna like this! Moishe Cohn was a small time clown on the Yiddish burlesque circuit. Murdered at Auschwitz, his last and most glorious prank happened at the moment of death - he turned around and bared his arse at the firing squad. Twenty five years later he is still up to his old tricks, albeit only in spectral form, possessing and messing with the mind of the man who killed him. Detective Schatz, formerly SS officer Schatz, is now a high ranking policeman in a small German town where he is enmeshed in an investigation into a series of murders. The victims, all men, are found naked with smiles of absolute ecstasy plastered across their faces. As community pressure to find the killer mounts, Schatz gradually loses his grip, much to the enjoyment of his poltergeist. Gary mines this rather wacky setup to hilarious comic effect, but in doing so manages to tackle some very big issues - complicity, reconciliation, retribution and the absurdity of de-Nazification. It is as disturbing as it is funny; sometimes Gary misfires, sometimes he is weighed down by very 1960s concerns (it was written in 1967). But for the most part The Dance of Genghis Cohn explores Holocaust taboos with insight and mad style. While the French literati now throw prizes at anyone who so much as mentions the H word quite irrespective of whether their books are any good (I'm lookin' at you Haenel, Littell and Binet), this long out-of-print classic is the only one that really matters.
4 Out of 5 Mooning Poltergeists

Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal
From what I gather, Lore Segal is something of an American national treasure. By no means prolific, her output is anxiously anticipated and well-recieved. Now, at 85, she brings us her treatise on old age, a tender, funny novel about an Alzheimer's epidemic in post-9/11 New York. There's no great narrative thread to be found here, just a bunch of old folk suddenly losing the plot and driving their family and medical carers around the bend. There's some tangential stuff about an investigation into it all being some terrorist attack but that is by the by. Segal paints her characters with a gentle bittersweetness that will have you warming to them in a way that makes you second guess your mirth. Given that most of her characters are Jewish (of the Catskills variety), the guilt factor is a brilliant joke in itself. So too are some of Segal's stabs at the world of writing, where the immediacy of the internet has allowed for a deluge of material to drown prospective publishers. The back cover boasts some glowing puffs from some of America's literary greats. I must be missing something. Half A Kingdom is a charming distraction, sure, but that's about it.
3 Out Of 5 Blue Rinses

Premature Congratulations: What's With All The "Best Of" Lists?

Knock knock...


Anyone in book world listening?

Here we are at the tail end of November and there's a sudden influx of Best Of 2013 lists. The Guardian just did their annual survey of authors. Goodreads has its poll running. Both Barnes and Noble and Amazon have already started flogging their picks in anticipation of the Christmas shopping rush. Even semi-respectable rags like Huffington Post and Publishers Weekly have blown their literary loads (and seriously, PW, Mohsin Hamid??? Did you even read that thing?).


There are still five weeks left. That's five weeks of reading all those books released this year that you have not yet had the chance to read. Best Of lists are for December. The last week of December, to be precise. Nobody wants to see your Best Of lists before that.

Grumble grumble.

National Book Award 2013: The Bird and the McBridesmaids

on Thursday, November 21, 2013
At last I got one right!!!

Just as I predicted a few days ago, James McBride's The Good Lord Bird has taken home this year's National Book Award for fiction. Sure, I hadn't actually read it when I made the prediction but it was on top of my pile. And, true to this weird practical clairvoyance I seem to have when it comes to these things, I was on the last chapter of the book when the announcement was made. That means McBride joins Jose Saramago, J. M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, Peter Carey, and Kiran Desai as recipients of major awards while I happened to be reading their work. Seriously. It's crazy Twilight Zone stuff. Next year I think I'll put my 'skill' to good use and try to engineer outcomes. If it actually works, stuff it, I'm starting a religion.

But I digress... Can't say I'm upset by the win. McBride's book is a lot of fun and tackles some pretty big issues. That said, I'm not sure it's Great American Novel stuff (full review coming soon!), but it certainly offers a unique (and slightly wacky) window on a very interesting period in American history. It is also quintessentially 'Murrrcan in its substance and style. So, all in all a good, safe pick by the National Book Foundation. And a bloody ripper pick by me!

The World Is A Lessing Place

on Monday, November 18, 2013
What terribly sad news to wake up to this morning; Doris Lessing, my absolutely favourite Nobel laureate of recent years, passed away overnight aged 94. Sure, it was a fair innings, but she was a literary treasure, someone whose age almost proved her immortality. I could go on for hours about her brilliance but I think it can all be summed up in a single video. What fantastically cynical wit she showed when told of her big gong:

Farewell you great human being. Thanks for The Good Terrorist. And The Fifth Child. And The Golden Notebook. And Memoirs of a Survivor. And the Canopus In Argus: Archives cycle. And The Sweetest Dream. And The Children of Violence series. And... And... And...

The National Bonk Awards (By Which I Mean The National Book Award and the Bad Sex in Fiction Award)

on Friday, November 15, 2013
Thought you'd escaped my fetish for book awards? Think again.

It's National Book Award week and, like the Booker, this year boasts a pretty impressive shortlist. In case you haven't seen it (and let's face it, although Americans think there are only two book awards - this and the Pulitzer - those of us in the Yankee diaspora tend to be a little more blase about it all) the books battling it out for hometown glory are:

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Hard to pick a winner here, not that my predictions ever count for anything (right, Jim Crace?). A number of factors seem to bode well for George Saunders. Not only is he a long time darling of the American literati but this particular book got crazy buzz when it was released. Plus, with Alice Munro taking out the Nobel, this might just be the year of the short story. Personally I wasn't all that fussed with Tenth of December. Sure, it had a couple of great stories, but I could take or leave the rest. The other big buzz magnet this year was Kushner who had everyone from the latte-sipping West Villagers to the brisket-munching Brooklynites (apparently nobody above Union Square gave a shit) heralding the arrival of a new saviour. It's been on my shelf for ages and, I suppose, if it wins I'll get around to reading it. But for now it remains amongst the books I won't be reading this year. Lahiri gets a second bite at the apple but I suspect that come Wednesday she'll still be hungry. Reviews for Pynchon have been kinda patchy but I'm thinking they might give him the prize just to see if he turns up or if, as I suspect, Bleeding Edge was one of the manuscripts found in JD Salinger's safe. Which leaves my personal pick - The Good Lord Bird. The story of abolitionist John Brown told through the eyes (and stylised patio) of a cross dressing slave, it has WINNER written all over it. Also, as it happens, it's the next book on my pile to read and I've had some form in the past reading the book that won a major award at the time that award was announced.

This is also the time of the most enjoyable literary award on the calendar - The Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Run by my favourite book rag, The Literary Review, it is bestowed on the most off-purple prose in a new novel (erotica is excluded from contention so EL James has never got a look in). This year's shortlist is:

My Education by Susan Choi
The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood
House of Earth by Woody Guthrie
Motherland by William Nicholson
The Victoria System by Eric Reinhardt
The World Was All Before Them by Matthew Reynolds
The City of Devi by Manil Suri
Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

Special props to Suri for "As he presses forth, he pulls me to him, so that my body bends against his in the same arc, like in the yoga asanas we once practiced. I feel his penis climb up my thigh", but surely the frontrunner has to be Woodie Guthrie's godawful sex scenes in an otherwise pretty decent book. Those of you with photographic memories might recall my review: "Think a less accomplished Steinbeck or Sinclair, with the added bonus of long descriptions of the protagonist's penis and you'll have some idea of what you're in for." Don't believe me? Here's a small... um... taste: "So magnified and so keen were her feelings that her inner nerves could even feel the bumps, the ridges, the pimples, the few stray hairs along the shaft of his male rod." It's gold, Jerry. GOLD!!!

Follow the hilarity on Twitter at #badsex

Books I Won't Be Reading

on Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Now that the initial panic of Cramageddon has subsided, I've done a bit of literary triage to lighten the load.

I've pretty much stuck to two rules:

1) No blockbusters. They'll be getting enough coverage come December without my input.

2) No books over 350 pages. In fact, if you decide to drop a brick in November (or have dropped a brick that I haven't yet read by November) I say a pox on you and your verbosity.

So, with my derision deflectors set to full power, here's a few of the books I've decided not to read in 2013:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Sure, I was excited as the rest of you when I heard this was coming out. And yes, I loved The Secret History. Then I remembered The Little Friend and thought, fuck it, I'm not committing myself to 800-odd pages when you've only got a 50% strike rate.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read Half Of A Yellow Sun. Can't be stuffed reading the other half.

The Kills by Richard House. If only it had made the Booker shortlist I wouldn't have had a choice. Indeed, I would have welcomed its company on the long haul flight back from Detroit, to give a certain symmetry to my flight across with The Luminaries. Alas, now that I do, I think I'll put it aside for a summer beach read. Then again, I don't really like the beach. Or summer.

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates. What was this? Book number 3 for her in 2013? I can't even write shopping lists that prolifically.

Eyrie by Tim Winton. Breath was great. I can take or leave pretty much everything else of his. I imagine Eyrie will have surfing in it. Sorry if I just spoiled it for you.

The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker. I actually really want to read this. It has a certain air of charm and wonder. But right now I've got golems coming out every orifice and, when the mud hardens, it's gonna hurt. Pass.

Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. It's the first book by him that I'm going to skip. My brain just can't handle the impenetrable prose or the theoretical density. And it's about flowers. Those bastards give me hayfever.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. This minute's Great American Novel. Expect to see it atop many lists. Just not mine.

Triage done, let's see how I go with the rest.

First World Reading Problems Vol. 3: Cramageddon

on Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Cramageddon(n): The last ditch effort to read as many books as possible before the end of the year. Usually undertaken with the intention of bumping up one's end of year tally (it is a competition, after all) or ensuring the infallibility of one's "Best Of" lists.

Aaaaaaaargh! 2014 is almost upon us and this, dear Bookworms, is my "To Read" shelf:

Yep, despite a fifty percent hit rate on new releases (sixty six of the one hundred and thirty five books I've read this year), I still have a long way to go. Somehow, I don't think I'm going to get through all of them.

How then to decide? Are there any that I'm really dying to read? Or that I absolutely must read if I don't want to seem foolish when I compile my "Best Of" list? I know books like The Goldfinch, The Flamethrowers and Bleeding Edge will be topping many other people's lists. But how can I pass up newies from former favourites like William H. Gass, Paul Auster or my old guilty pleasure, Robert Harris? And what about the buzz around The Golem and The Jinni, The Madonna On The Moon and The Man With the Compound Eyes? So many great books. So little time.

Ok, November. It's you, me and this pile. On your marks. Get set. CRAMAGEDDON!

Amazon's Day One: New Dawn or Old Hat?

on Saturday, November 2, 2013
Is there a new battlefield in the war of words?

A couple of days ago Team Amazon announced that they were launching a new offensi... um... initiative called Day One which, despite its name, will be a weekly e-publication dedicated to short fiction and poetry. It is, according to Amazon's spin doctors, an attempt to bring the old raison d'ĂȘtre of the literary magazine (exposing new talent to potential readers) to the digital age. Each week, sucke... um... subscribers will be sent a story and poem (with a little introductory blab from the 'editor' and a specially commissioned cover) on their Kindle or Kindle Reading App. So as not to be overwhelmed (subscribers, it appears, are remarkably fickle) there will only be one story and one poem per issue, thus saving readers from such overbearing things as variety, depth, commentary, criticism and (arguably) value.

All jokes aside, the wilfully blind optimist in me thinks it could indeed be a great launchpad for future stars. Let's face it. In an ever expanding field, it is hard to know who you ought to be checking out. Even buzz has become white noise. If this serves to direct you to just one new author you come to love, it will have been worth the subscription price ($19.99 per year).

My inner cynic, however, has caught a whiff of crass marketeering - given Amazon has moved into the world of publishing, not to mention shut out some publishers following the big court case, it will be interesting to see just who is featured in Day One. Will this just be a way to either push their own writers or charge publishers to have new discoveries 'featured' in the mag? Credit where it is due, though. They are actually making people pay to read what essentially amounts to promotional material! That there is some serious chutzpah.

We won't know for a while how Day One pans out but, either way, I've already been shunted to the sidelines. The service is only available to American subscribers. Bah, humbug!