Sunday, 30 January 2011

My Month in Novels (Jan)

I was going to scrap these monthly reading round-ups, but gosh. They are such an effective way of posting something without having to sit down and commit to writing anew. So. Here are micro-reviews of the stupid amount of books I read this week, from Goodreads. (Remember I have no life and that most of these books were under 250 pages, so I suck).

1. W.G. Sebald — The Emigrants

Very powerful memoir. A staple in the memoir and/or creative non-fiction genre.

2. Flann O’Brien — Stories and Plays

A collection of three stories and two short plays from Ireland’s greatest living humorist. Faustus Kelly was produced at the Abbey Theatre in the 1940s and featured then up-and-coming actor Cyril Cusack (famous for his role in The Day of the Jackal). Slattery’s Sago Saga was to be Flann’s next novel following The Dalkey Archive, until the demon drink took him in 1966. It’s a satirical marvel stretching beyond the provincialism of his other works, featuring an obscure form of starchy cereal. Only seven chapters were completed. Worth a look for fans.

3. Zadie Smith — White Teeth

The novel that shot Zadie (née Sadie) into the literary stratosphere in 2001. A decade down the line and this is still a dazzling performance. A mordant look at first-generation Bengali immigrants and the next generation’s confused Anglicization and alienation. A scalpel-sharp realist novel with teeth sharper than a puma. Plus (near the end) a witty debate on religion v. science. And so much more besides. Not head-over-heels in love with that ending. Reads more like an intellectual copout than a tightly sewn climax to me. Still, this is a clearly sublime must-read.

4. Kurt Vonnegut — Bluebeard

Vonnegut’s books are hard to summarise as the usual elements are always present and eminently sum-up-able: good-natured satire, moving stories-within-stories, shabby protags who inherit and lose fortunes as naturally as TV remotes, strong women always at the centre of life’s mayhem, the ghost of WWII past. This one hits at the same highs as his other eighties novels,
Deadeye Dick and Galápagos, and deserves more attention.

5. Jean-Philippe Toussaint — Monsieur

A charming story evoking The Stranger, with more whimsy and less existential meat.

6. Frédéric Beigbeder — Holiday in a Coma & Love Lasts Three Years

Two electrifying short novels from a witty and provocative Frenchie. The first is a gruesome satire about single life in celeb Paree, the second a lovesick rant about doomed romance. For all their spume and bile and fight, both books turn out to be surprisingly touching.

7. Iqbal Ahmed — Sorrows of the Moon: A Journey Through London

Iqbal Ahmed takes us through London in ten chapters, each centred around one immigrant’s experience of living in the capital. Their experiences are mostly negative and show a common difficulty assimilating to the culture. These narratives are weaved around a reflective memoir and geographical observations that make a natural, very humble and kind book that paints a dark and accurate picture of immigrant life, sans any hectoring or bias. Sadly this edition was badly (or barely) proofread and the em dashes were inconsistent in the text, which niggled me. Apart from that, a worthwhile effort.

8. Ronald Sukenick — Endless Short Story

I hadn’t heard of New York publisher the Fiction Collective before chancing upon this book. They seem like an interesting avant-garde press with a bagful of unpublishable arrogance up their sleeves. Brilliant. This book contains a series of formally innovative stories that use typography and punctuation-free mayhem to make their mark.

In some cases the form determines the content, as in ‘Boxes’ (stories in little text boxes) or ‘Verticals and Horizontals.’ In other cases, the experiments are either tedious, as in ‘Bush Fever,’ or intolerable, an in the S-o-C ‘5 & 10.’ My favourite is the Sorrentino-ish ‘Duck Tape’ where the narrator's identity is played around with and ‘What’s Watts’ is a blast of Beckettian fun. This sort of postmodernism kicked the bucket in the eighties, so it's nice to look back and see it wasn’t that bad. Still, this is strictly for avant-garde nuts only. Sorry Ronald.

9. Patrik Ouředník — Europeana: A Brief History Of The Twentieth Century

I’m not as drivellingly crazy about this as most Goodreaders seem to be, but it is a funny and horrifying little mini-history using Czech irony (such a thing exists) to make its impact. The history isn’t presented in any logical order. Some parts juxtapose others, such as the Holocaust next to Bill Clinton’s (non-)affair, or Dadaism beside detailed parts on eugenics and so on. The tone is slightly childish, most sentences starting with “and then . . . ” as though being narrated by a grownup to a child. We’re either encouraged to laugh at the absurdity of the world or see it as one elaborate joke. The result is a bizarre, funny and shocking (but not entirely useful) book.

10. J.G. Ballard — The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard’s iconic experimental novel presupposing the death of affect and lending itself to the horrible drum loop that opens Joy Division’s Closer. Includes such fun words as ‘mimetized’ and ‘bucca’ and ‘polyperverse.’ It’s mad. Very mad. And also brilliant.

11. A.L. Kennedy — On Bullfighting

A.L. (Alison Louise) Kennedy is a big writer in Scotland, known for her serious-minded novels, her frequent hints at suicide, and her second career in stand-up comedy. I find her a fascinating figure, and a hilarious stand-up, but haven’t been able to connect with her prose. There is something oblique and defensive about her books that makes them impossible to penetrate, although they are clearly soul-bearing and honest works.

This book is an awkward mash-up of confession and non-fiction. What the cool kids call creative non-fiction. The story begins with an aborted suicide attempt. Kennedy’s reluctance to die to the strains of the dire Scottish folk song ‘Mhairi’s Wedding’ tells us she is too in love with the grotesque ironies of the world to end things. As an attempt to get writing again she accepts a commission to write a book on bullfighting. Hence this book, On Bullfighting.

So the work is as odd as this sounds. The focus is on toreros and bulls and the lusty carnage of the sport, stuffed with too much technical terminology and awkward reportage, interspersed with reports on Kennedy’s own state of mind. This is limited mainly to her banal discomforts and travelogue shtick, with the occasional personal memory. (One random scene shows her discussing her grandfather’s passing which proves oddly moving).

The tension lies in the title. A.L. Kennedy On Bullfighting. You get A.L. Kennedy, but not enough. You don’t get enough personal insight that makes us care about this trip. We don’t get enough explanation as to her motives for making the trek to Spain. She seems to write the book in a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

You get Bullfighting. But not enough. The information is accurate and written with flair. The bullfights are shown in their goring horror and attempts are made to explain the lust for death and suffering. But opinions aren’t formed. Stances aren’t taken. You could look this stuff up online. The connections between Kennedy, the suffering author obsessed with pain and misery, and the toreros, those brave idiots dancing with death, are tenuous and the result is an uneven and frustrating work.

12. Zoran Živković — Hidden Camera

A cerebral thriller and anti-communist parable, using illusion and irony to polemicize the paranoia and suspicion surrounding the Balkan conflict. Also heavily interpretable: I saw the glib undertaker’s trip as a form of spiritual rebirth. An appreciation for the beauty of life in a cold and heartless world. (Aww.) A truly amazing book. Highly readable and playful.

13. Deborah Levy — Billy and Girl

Oh God, God, God this is good. Soooo goood. This is silk in prose form. A thorough back rub followed by a two-week cruise on the Med with Sophie Dahl in prose form. This is motherlickin’ awesome.

Billy & Girl is a novel about a brother and sisters. That plural wasn’t an accident. Girl is the protagonist, a whip-smart but damaged teenager who set fire to her father for beating up her brother, Billy. The novel follows their attempts to reinstate their lost parents following this inflammatory snub. Girl appears to suffer from a bipolar personality disorder, her ‘retarded’ self working in FreezerWorld as the dowdy Louise.

What makes this novel so good is how Levy pulls us into an implausible and demented world of two broken and fucked up children, lost in the shrub of a parentless wild, and makes us laugh and vomit and weep and stare gawp-eyed at the page in horror. Her style is more addictive than a chocolate-covered brownie fudge cake. At the centre of this chocolate-covered brownie fudge cake is hair and spiders and worms. Truly amazing.

As the story progresses, Louise materialises into a separate character, an actual distinct entity, and the novel opens up a box of hairy metaphysical goblins to gnaw your brain. The whole book burns with the most energetic and hair-tugging prose you’re likely to read about two teenage rapscallions living in their own psychopathic dream-delusion. Read this or I will hunt you down and kill you.

14. Dinty W. Moore — Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction

The word missing from the title is “beginner’s.” Guide. This is a beginner’s guide to writing and publishing creative nonfiction. In fact, creative nonfiction as we understand it now: a broad plateau of autobiographical arms and experiential limbs, isn’t covered in much detail. It would be better, in fact, if we removed the phrase “Creative Nonfiction” from the title, as Dinty hardly gets to the meat and bones of this ever-expanding genre.

As a book for novice essayists, it’s helpful. Like most of these books there are asinine and embarrassing writing prompts, samey pedagogical lectures, and glaringly obvious things anyone with eyes could figure out. He does cover a range of styles and options, though, and uses a friendly tone to help us along. It’s a practical and down-to-earth book.

Sadly, he’s also very patronising. When he quotes Montaigne or Twain, he keeps reminding us that they spoke funny in them days, and to keep going although you find it difficult, because these old guys really taught us something about essay-writing. Yeah, these cool guys were the first practitioners of the craft, and we should learn from them, even though they write funny and go on too long and quote for most of their essays. So here, read this nine-page essay from 1802. Enjoy.

Dinty (OK, I’ll be juvenile: who would name their child Dinty?) also inserts a few long essays of his own with one or two comments. But mostly they’re page-filler and rather pointless. Yes, Dinty. You can write good essays. We know. Sheesh. Likewise there’s an unnecessary section on writing habits, repeating the same advice truncheoned into us by writers who specialise in feel-good stoical soundbytes: “persevere, revise everything, stick in there!”Blah. Get Lee Gutkind’s book first.

15. Jean-Philippe Toussaint — Running Away

My university Writers’ Room has shelf stuffed with Dalkey Archive books. This was among them. This novel is similar in tone to Monsieur, which I read last month, with its existentially gloomy protagonist ambling around having formal first-person adventures.

This one is ostensibly about distance and being absent when our loved ones need us most, winding through a distracting subplot involving drugs and a bike ride before we get to the tender and sexy climax. The prose is lyrical and perfunctory, though when the narrator starts telling us about his partner Marie’s thoughts and actions, when he is nowhere in her vicinity, the narrative position is a little crooked. These things matter, Jean-Philippe.

16. Marilyn Chin — Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen

Highly original and inventive “manifesto in 41 tales” with a heavily feminist bent. The tales are drawn from Buddhist texts and a platter of Chinese folklore, updated for a modern audience (i.e. fellatio and naughty bits). Tone-wise the stories present a gritty or whimsical look at first-generation Chinese immigrant life, a stylised satire of over-sexed second-generation teenage life, and a fantastical world of vaginas with teeth, fox metamorphoses and ninja grandmas. Very funny and refreshing.

17. Camilo José Cela — Christ Versus Arizona

My introduction to Tombstone, Arizona and wildwest folklore starts and ends with Johnny Cash Sings the Ballads of the True West. Oh . . . and now this novel. Narrated by Wendell Espana (or Wendell Liverpool Espana or Span or Aspen) in one meandering sentence, the novel is a barbed and horrific account of a senseless and bloodthirsty hellhole where violence and mayhem rules the roost. The sexual account of prostitutes is notably predominant (and drives the novel in its own depraved way) among the stories of murder and lunacy. Needs to be read to be believed.

18. Jeanette Winterson — Written on the Body

For epicurean lesbians and logorrhoeic romantics everywhere.

19. Gert Jonke — Homage to Czerny

Now. Look here. The good thing about the Dalkey Archive Press is it keeps great writers like Gilbert Sorrentino or Bernard Share or Deborah Levy in print. And that’s good. We praise them for that. Another good thing is their commitment to publishing avant-garde books that push back the boundaries of narrative without being po-faced or arrogant. The work is never dry or elitist, although often difficult. It invites the tentative reader into a brave new world of fictional possibilities.

On the other hand, sometimes it publishes books that are so unfathomable and weird that no one knows where to look. Think Daniel Robberechts. Or Austryn Wainhouse. Some books weren’t crying out for English translation or re-release. This book is one such example. With its clumsy and awkward sentences. With its quotemarkless dialogue. With its nonsensical plot. With its cringing absurdism. You can't win ‘em all. Still, support the Dalkey Archive Press and buy something today. I command you.

20. Michel Houellebecq — Atomised

The longueur of French academic life. The pain of being 40 and unfuckable. Something about quantum physics. It’s all here in this eggheady gloom festival.


Library photo: Arkansas College Library


  1. If I read your blog posts can I pretend I've read the books too? Also, I know this isn't the main point of your blog but...Sophie Dahl? That bit was unexpected. X

  2. Babs: OK. I promise to read nineteen next month.

    Sian: I know, I was surprised too. But there you go.