I have to start coming up with better titles than 3-in-1s

•December 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Continuing with my new-found lazy way of writing about books – here’s another 3-in-1. So let’s start off with…

jeph_loeb_batman_the_long_halloweenJeph Loeb – Batman -The Long Halloween

This is my first ever Batman comic and supposedly an inspiration for The Dark Knight. And I have nothing specifically bad to say about it – or specifically good. It’s a fun enough distraction but nothing more. The one major complaint comes from the format really: initially it was serialized, each episode taking place on a different holiday and starting off with a little reminder of who everyone is and what happened to them last time. Which, when you read them all together, gets pretty grating and repetitive by the third story. But it’s a good character arc and an engaging mystery – and that’s more important I suppose.

italo_calvino_if_on_a_winters_night_a_travellerItalo Calvino – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

I was surprised at how fun this was. From all the things I had read about it before, I expected it to be a dry (yet somewhat poetic) academic exercise – and it was anything but. It’s a book based on an ingenious gimmick, with every odd-numbered chapter told in the second person, addressing directly to the reader and with every even-numbered chapter a standalone story presented as part of whatever book the Reader is starting. It is a little disconcerting  at first to see the act of reading deconstructed into every minute detail  – the chair, the light, the drink the trip to the bathroom – but you’re soon enough emerged in this exercise. It’s the hunt for a book: the Reader starts a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler but soon discovers that after the first chapter the book binding is messed up and goes back to the library for another copy. From here on, he’s always directed towards another book which promises to be that very first one – and yet never is. Together with a Female Reader, they embark upon a meta journey through different tropes and literary genres, with every even-numbered chapter being, in fact, a pastiche.

peter_ho_davies_the_welsh_girlPeter Ho Davies – The Welsh Girl

I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I read Granta #81. Best of young British novelists – but it came as a bit of a disappointment. I liked it well enough, but it’s forgettable overall and I found that the element that initially drew me to it (a German immigrant, half-Jew, who gets the chance, as part of the British army, to interrogate Rudolf Hess) is in fact superfluous. We start off with this guy and his interrogation (which doesn’t really reveal anything) and end up in a remote Irish village  where there’s a POW camp being built. The local atmosphere feels realistic and Esther and Karsten are well rounded characters but, by the time Rotheram (the immigrant) shows up again, you will have forgotten all about him. Mr. Davies reminded me a bit of Kazuo Ishiguro in style – the calm and quiet of the characters, their resignation at going through life without rebelling, their sense of duty. Esther’s story is one of many small tragedies: raped by the boyfriend who will then leave the village, she ends up getting pregnant and being forced to keep the baby (she tried for an abortion, but the doctor refuses to perform it). She lies about the fatherhood – saying it was a boy from the village who’s presumed dead in the war and with whom everyone thought she had a relationship (although she had in fact refused his proposal and quite despised him) thus securing his mother’s help and the support and compassion of the whole village. It might be easy to judge her decision, and paint her as a bit of a villain – but at the end of the day, she’s doing really the best for her child. Rotheram shows up again at the end and wraps up the story neatly – he stops by in the village a few years later and relates Esther’s  situation and one amongst many others, making even this last appearance useless, since this closure doesn’t, in fact, add anything to the story. The NYT reviewer though seemed to like this much more than me.


•November 27, 2012 • 2 Comments

WordPress reminded me: 5 years, 4 days. And this is my first post in almost a month. Oups?


•November 1, 2012 • Leave a Comment

3 really is the magic number by the look of things.

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

This was a very pleasant surprise. Booker nominee – that’s about I knew of the book before opening it (or rather, before clicking on the first page, since I read it on Grace, the borrowed Kindle) so I guess it goes to show that a leap of faith is not the worst thing in the world :). It starts out fairly mundane: two middle class, middle aged couples sharing a villa on a vacation in France let a stranger in their lives and you know this stranger, an odd girl called Kitty, will wreak havoc with their lives. And she does, but not in the way you expect. Ms. Levy manages to create a tense and foreboding atmosphere with only a few words (the book runs about 100 pages), to reveal and to hide their relationships not just with each other, but with locals and, mostly, with Kitty, the engine of the books, as The Guardian puts it. She hints at secrets and baggage that none of them has the possibility (or the opportunity, or desire) to shed with a delightfully dry sense of humor – who wouldn’t love that?

Couples were always keen to return to the task of trying to destroy their lifelong partners while pretending to have their best interests at heart. A single guest was a mere distraction from this task.

Scandal – Shusaku Endo

Reading the back cover made me both get the book (for the promise of psychological analysis) and not be all that eager to read it (for the hinted-at descriptions of whatever is considered perverse in Japan). But if anyone has similar doubts, I can only say that there was nothing to be wary of, because the author never goes further than some mild S&M. What is actually interesting is Suguro’s descent into his own repressed subconscious. Being a Christian writer in Japan apparently means that you ascribe to a stricter morality than your peers and Suguro’s inclination to imbue his prose (yes, Suguro is a well respected writer, pushing 70) with Christian values makes him a sort of poster boy (not a good choice of phrase, I’m the first to admit) for an austere and righteous way of life. While receiving a literary award, he thinks he sees his own face contorted in an evil and depraved rictus at the back of the crowd and, later that same night, he meets a woman claiming to have met him in a rather disreputable neighborhood (Kabukichō?). These two seemingly inoccuous events coupled with a nosy and jealous reporter and a mysterious woman with some unusual proclivities form the tipping point that makes his life unravel. It ends up being an engrossing confrontation with the self, a deeper look into the relativity of goodevil and, most of all, humanity.

Vengeance is mine – Mickey Spillane

The last novel in the Mickey Spillane omnibus was…exactly like the others. Not better, not worse and definitely not thrilling.I suppose this type of noir works so much better in the movies, helped along by a charismatic lead. The dames, the jargon, the tough no-nonsense PI – they’re all here, but when you can guess the killer in the first 10 pages there’s very little fun left.


•October 16, 2012 • 1 Comment

You guys – and when I say “you guys” I know I mostly mean random people on the internet who just wandered here for the first and only time looking for something about Cloud Atlas or ASoIaF (Hi, there!) –  I still read. Maybe not a lot, definitely not as much as I used to, but I still do. I’ve just lost the desire to write about what I read. I used to feel that I couldn’t put a book back on the shelf until I wrote about it; that I wasn’t finished with a book until I scribbled something mostly meaningless about what it may have meant to me on this blog. But now, with a borrowed kindle, a long commute and no shelves (WIP) I seem to have lost my routine.

This long-winded paragraph was my way of giving an explanation for the 3-in-1 post I’m doing. On an unrelated note, Neil Gaiman has announced a new adult book, and this, at least, fills me with joy and anticipation.

The Dog Stars – Peter Heller

I read about the book in an article somewhere and when a friend got around to it he described it as sadder than The Road which is as inaccurate as it goes (for a number of reasons I’ll get into in a bit) but it doesn’t mean it’s not comparable to The Road. They are both set in a post-apocalyptic world, both following the struggles of a ragged band of survivors. But where The Road’s Man & Boy are lost, hungry, cold, unarmed and following a path that might lead them nowhere, The Dog Stars’s Hig is living an in abandoned hangar, growing veggies, hunting with his dog Jasper and occasionally flying because, oh yeah, he has a plane. His human companion is Bangley, a gun nut and quite a good strategist, who saves Hig’s ass a number of times. And while the dog’s death and the emptiness and purposelessness Hig feels is moving, it’s nothing compared to the tense desperation of the Man, knowing is days are fast approaching their end and his son will be left defenseless. So, as far as the end of the world goes, Hig doesn’t have it all that bad.

Re-reading this last paragraph, it seems to me I sound a little combative – which was far from my intention, since I just wanted to make a little comparison of situations. I did enjoy the book and its mixture of fun, melancholy and, most of all, humanity, is quite captivating.

Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano

This short novel deals with the lives of Alice and Mattia, from a tormented childhood, to a dysfunctional adulthood. Alice, under the care of an overbearing father, has a skiing accident which leaves her with both physical and mental scars. As a teenager she can’t accept herself, she becomes anorexic and she is bullied by a classmate. While she does discover a passion in photography, her whole life is still under the control of those traumas: they destroy her relationships and lead her to have a hard (if not impossible) time of making emotional connections with others – except for Mattia. A child of emotional trauma as well (at the age of 9 he has abandoned his mentally challenged sister in a park – where she got lost or died) he copes with his struggle by cutting himself. An exceptional mind, he is gifted for mathematics, basking in its cold, emotionless approach and the deepest human connection he manages to have is with Alice. They are the prime numbers (the conceit on which the whole book is based) – twin numbers always in proximity, never fully touching. Outsiders. While the idea is fairly interesting, I wasn’t really moved by the execution – it falls in maudlin, trite and even some kind of sensationalism a little too often – but it did make me think about the scarring one can unwittingly inflict on the fragile mind of a child. NYTimes has made so much more of the book than I managed to – but I suspect it’s just a matter of what makes you tick.

Narcopolis – Jeet Thayil 

Unlike the rather lukewarm feelings I had about the other two, Narcopolis I loved, perhaps mostly because it brought me back to India, a country which used to hold a high standing in my reading list, but which has fallen to the wayside lately (soon to be corrected). The hero is rather a heroine, as the narrator puts it – because it’s a story about addiction in Bombay on the 70s. The first person narration it starts and ends with melds seamlessly into a third person narration when we enter Rashid’s khana on Shuklaji Street and meet Dimple, his pipe-maker. Dimple, a rather unique character, is always referred to in the feminine, but we soon learn that she’s actually an eunuch made at the age of 9, after her mother can no longer care for her and abandons her. She’s a prostitute, a pipe maker and, above all, an addict – and she introduces us to the underbelly of Mumbai, the junkies, the pimps and the murderers through a haze of opium smoke. And, while the book does strike some false notes (Dimple’s cultural opinions aren’t really true to the character) this doesn’t make it a less fascinating journey into a world long gone. In the end, Bombay is replaced by Mumbai, slums are replaced by the cold steel of office buildings and the haze of the khana by the glaring lights of a club. Jeet Thayil’s has battled his own addiction for 20 years but, as the Guardian review says, this experience has not gone to waste. And of the 2 nominees for the 2012 Booker I’ve read, I’d give him the edge over Hilary Mantel. She is definitely deserving, but she’s already won in 2009 and Bring up the bodies is more of the same, really.

Last Orders

•September 15, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Graham Swift’s novel is a walk down memory lane following the death of a friend and, to my surprise, won the Booker in 1996. Ray (Lucky Ray), Vic, Lenny and Vince (the deceased’s sort-of-son) go on a trip from Bermondsey to Margate to fulfill Jack Dodd’s last wishes: have his ashes scattered over the sea. On the way they make a few unplanned stops and the chapters jump from their little trip and its events to point-of-view recollections from each of the four, plus Amy, Jack’s wife. Through the entwining narratives you get a glimpse into the secrets they’ve kept from each other in the course of a 40 year friendship and the disappointments they each lived.  Ray and Amy had an affair. Vince isn’t Jack’s flesh and blood, but a boy orphaned in the war that Amy took in while her husband was on the front. Vince left Sally (Lenny’s daughter) pregnant and she had an abortion at the urging of her father. Jack and Amy’s daughter was born mentally disabled and has lived for 50 years in a home. All these – and many more – have added to the dynamic of the group and Jack’s death is the moment when old wounds start bleeding again. The most compelling bits are the parent-child relationships: how they each made (or are in the progress of making) mistakes with their daughters, mistakes that still haunt them and will probably be with them until their deaths.

A friend’s death is a simple plot device to bring the conversation towards mortality and the limited time one has left to make things right. But my guess is that, beyond this little trip, characters such as these will return to their daily grind because they are stuck – they fantasize about rebuilding bridges long burned but they all know it really is too late. Perhaps tellingly, the only one with a calm, clean conscience is Vic, the undertaker: close proximity to the dead might have pushed him to make the best of it all.

There’s also a movie – and I think I might see it one day. The reason I said, in the beginning, that the Booker surprised me is that this book is ultimately quite forgettable – and I remember I said the same thing about The light of dayAnd the two are actually quite similar – broaching subjects like the father-daughter relationships, regrets or guilt.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

•September 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The three novellas collected under this title pose, at their core, the question of identity – and you can (and should, if you have the time) read a whole essay on this. The narrative in all 3 takes place on the twin plates of St. Anne & St. Croix, colonized by the French some time ago. We are not particularly concerned with the historical aspects of the colonization, but more with the day-to-day life on these planets: St. Anne – akin to the Wild West and St Croix – closer to the civilized East. At first glance, anyway.

The Fifth head of Cerberus, the title story, takes place on St Croix entirely and starts off as a childhood memory, but we soon realize that it’s nothing as simple as that. The narrator unveils a world where slavery is the norm, trading in children is a common occupation and a scientist funds his laboratory and experiments by maintaining a brothel.

I had started detailing the plot points, but it now strikes me that I’d spoil the experience for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, because the 3 stories put together reveal as much as they hide about these twin planets and have you speculating and wondering on what is true and what is a myth.

This is my first encounter with Gene Wolfe, but it’s been a very exciting one and I’m definitely looking forward to getting to know him better. In fact, the only (tiny) piece of criticism I could throw at this book is related to the fact that the second novella (A story) tends to be somewhat meandering. It makes sense, seeing as how it tells about life on St Anne before the colonization and takes the form of a legend really – but it’s still a bit dull and disengaging at times.


•September 1, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Freedom, Mr. Franzen’s long awaited follow-up to The Corrections was at once engaging and completely frustrating to me. Still a family drama (like the former) the latter focuses on a Patty & Walter Berglund’s marriage. And while it’s viewed from several angles and sometimes it seems to be completely off the radar, you know it’s still there, at the core of everything. Not because it’s one of those happy marriages, shining a light on everything they touch – and not because it’s the opposite – but simply because it’s a magnetic force you can’t help but being drawn into.

It all starts with the birth of a suburb – where we get a first look at the Berglund’s story (and their rise together with their little suburb’s) through neighbourhood gossip. The peculiar, plastic quality of Patty’s self-imposed (as we later come to learn) niceness seeps through her every word from the beginning and the neighbours don’t view the young family with terribly kind eyes. Conflicts are judged, sides are taken, we witness the children growing, their mother’s incapacity to act accordingly and their father’s incapacity to relate (especially to the boy, Joey) and, finally, their move to Washington.

Following this crash course in the superficiality of a relationship we get alternating chapters with Patty’s life story before, through and after the marriage; Walter’s youth and his work with Cerulean Mountain Trust (an environmental organization supported by mining companies, for which he ends up supporting MTR), Joey’s (mis)adventures in business and love and, finally, Richard’s rise to semi-fame as a front man for an indie band. Richard, of course, is Walter’s college roommate, Patty’s initial draw to Walter and her eternal what if.

Where The Corrections dealt with hindsight, over-analysis and pain of being stuck in a destructive pattern, Freedom deals with…well….freedom of all shapes and sizes and its pitfalls. Patty yearns to be free to be bad, to be the bad person that she feels she is on the inside (and she cheats on her husband), Joey wants to be free from his parents (and makes some costly business deals) and Walter wants to be free to pursue his interest in overpopulation (and makes some morally questionable choices himself). After all, any freedom comes at a price, and everyone is paying through the nose.

Freedom is just as funny, as ironic and as insightful as The Corrections but Walter’s environmental concerns, though an indelible part of who his is, seem to take up too much space and get to be quite tiring and preachy in their pc-ness. But what Mr. Franzen does best is create fully rounded characters – not just relatable, but real and unique. Patty’s journey, for example and her dedication to being the opposite of her mother and whole family is mirrored by her own children’s similar commitment and doesn’t strike one false note. And various reviewers seem to have enjoyed it too – so you can take their word and give it a shot: NYT, Guardian, The Independent.

Oh, and this fragment (among others) reminded me that Mr. Franzen really is a crank. And he’s probably right, too.

It’s like the internet, or cable TV – there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development. All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things and dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls., reacting to the latest random stimuli. 

Almost forgot – I also read Alastair Reynold’s The Prefect, a fun noirish scifi which I’d really recommed to anyone enjoying either genre and to the uninitiated in the world of space operas (such as myself :D). I just don’t feel like writing a whole post on it.