Sunday, 29 January 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (Jan)

1. Muriel Barbery — The Elegance of the Hedgehog

This begins as an acerbic, feisty and clever novel but falls apart through faulty structuring and undue mawkishness. The heroine is the concierge of an upper-middle-class apartment block who masks her contempt for the privileged and wealthy residents by secretly teaching herself how to discourse like a philosophy professor in her spare time. She shares the novel with a precocious twelve-year-old girl who is equally upset at the unfairness of kismet and plans to kill herself and burn down her parents’ apartment. The novel’s strengths lie in protagonist’s fiery humour and articulate disgust, and her moments of flighty insight into the hell of it all. As the novel progresses, however, the meeting between the concierge and the girl seems forced—we are meant to believe they share a kinship after a late meeting in the book, which despite the psychic connection between them on the page, doesn’t convince when they meet “in person.” Likewise, the pace flags in the middle when the balance between intellectual ponderousness and pushing the plot forward goes haywire, forcing a great deal of significant activity to the back end of the novel, where it falls back into sentiment for a ludicrously overegged climax. I’d recommend the book, alas, however, to those looking for something a little more sour than sweet in their bestselling French literary novels.

2. David Foster Wallace — Oblivion

I don’t think collections serve Foster Wallace well: it seems to me his stories would read better as stand-alones on some thoroughly modern internet webshite, with accompanying artwork or explanatory hyperlinks, rather than modishly festering on some fading acid paper alongside all the other fuddy-duddies. (PS Abacus, your paper is cheap and lousy). Case in point is ‘Mister Squishy,’ which seems to cry out for its own accompanying glossary, appended addenda and so on, but sits uneasily on the page in all its hypermodern dazzle. Nevertheless, the gang’s all here, from the disquieting hometown horror of ‘The Soul is Not a Smithy’ to the absolutely staggeringly wonderful exploration of a mind locked in a recursive self-critical philosophy, ‘Good Old Neon,’ to the blithering incomprehension of ‘Another Pioneer’ which I did not understand AT ALL.

‘The Suffering Channel’ is a brilliant novella about a pretentious style mag based in the World Trade Centre a few months before impact, and explores the peddling of suffering and faecal matter under the guise of an acceptable counterculture. Like the other pieces in this collection, it mimics the language and tone of its world with beyond pedantic perfection, without losing the detached overlord tone that keeps Wallace’s style distinctive. It is telling that the sentence that made me quiver the most was the unexpectedly direct insertion, on a one-word line of dialogue, of the simple statement: “She had ten weeks to live.” Oh God, I think my bones done froze themselves. How does he DO that?

The other pieces here are excellent, including the dramatic rush of ‘Incarnations of Burned Children’ which is a story it seems about narrative perspective, the short and endearingly odd ‘Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,’ and the title piece is a bamboozling voice experiment using a form of dreamlike language where the narrator is perpetually indecisive about word choice, and where words and their meanings are continually being challenged by infernal quote marks. The end result almost seems like a slightly canny self-parody or coyly embedded meta-comment, but who knows? It’s a difficult story to get through (along with the opening piece) but perseverance will be rewarded.

This collection will frustrate you and tantalise you in equal measure, but don’t worry: you’ll feel it in your nerve endings.

3. Colette — Ripening Seed

I have restricted access to books up here in the snowy Highlands, hence my reading this short novel plucked at random about melodramatic teenagers in love. Colette writes eloquently about nature in relation to human biology but this story has been told a thousand times before and with fewer obnoxious little brats involved. Did you know, incidentally, that since I’ve been up here I’ve had the worst cinematic experience of my life? I was made to watch the absolutely abysmally horrible film Patch Adams starring Robin Williams. If you’ve never seen this movie, it expresses so much contempt for the viewer and mankind, it’s practically nihilistic. I won’t go into the details, but it’s pretty much an A-Z guidebook for emotionally manipulative clichés, braindead slapstick humour and screenplays written by committees who should be shot. Horrendous.

4. Michel Faber — The Fahrenheit Twins

A rather readable batch of stories written in an edgy yet extremely cosy style, i.e. a shoo-in for Canongate. The writer is an Aussie of Dutch origin living in the Highlands who writes largely about Scottish characters, so my shelving him in the general European section is mostly biological pedantry. If you want a masterclass in how to win literary awards in this country look no further than these pieces, among them the weirdly spooky ‘All Black’ and ‘The Eyes of the Soul,’ the contemporary slices ‘The Smallness of the Action’ and ‘The Safehouse’ and darker digressions ‘Someone to Kiss it Better’ and ‘Finesse.’ The collection is consistently strong and never falls into a repetitive voice, partly due to the concision and warmth of each story. His ability to utilise the same voice and style without becoming dull is a rare commodity nowadays so Faber easily knocks most literary collections into a cocked hat. The title piece is the longest and least interesting story in the collection, though ‘Explaining Coconuts’ also pushes the dullness levels at times despite the coco-perversion. OK. I liked the collection. There are some beauteous pearls in here.

5. Suchen Christine Lim — The Lies That Build a Marriage

I sat opposite this writer at a dinner one evening and we never exchanged a word. I wish I had made an effort to chit-chat since her history is rather fascinating. But what do sixty-year-old Singaporean writers have in common with twenty-three-year-old Scottish solipsists? Not much. Suchen Christine Lim has been publishing since the 1980s having started fiction relatively late in life, and this is her most recent collection of stories based in modern Singapore. As the title makes clear, these stories challenge the country’s inane censorship laws by discussing homosexuality and same-sex adoption in a way that has never been discussed in Singapore before. The stories generally deal with shrewy mothers and wives, the failure to succeed financially and support a family without being gunned down by some bitchy wife’s wicked tongue, and generally vicious matriarchs who whomp their offspring for not obeying orders. The overall world evoked is extremely negative on the side of women, barring the children and eccentrics, but the stories are not short of humour or lightness, despite the surprisingly relentless female cruelty.

6. Cormac McCarthy — No Country For Old Men

Ah sureas hell aint foolish enough to write this here review in dialect cause ah sureas hell know itll sound like ahm fixin for a spankin from the real deep south folks, but ah caint resist the urge when the whole damn novel sounds like this, an why the hell not? Ah mean were in some southern location maybe Texas aint we? But cain ah keep up the dialect for the whole review? No, I sure as hell can’t. So let me review in my usual arch and brusque manner and dispense with these dialectical fripperies. This is a novel about a man who shoots everyone who crosses his path between the eyes and espouses this activity as a determinist philosophy. It’s also about a man who accidentally makes off with a swag bag o’ cash and accidentally gets himself and his wife shot between the eyes and misleads us into thinkin he’s some kinda hero. There’s also an absolutely useless sheriff—sorry, sherrf—who waxes philosophical in dialect and who fails to solve the crime and who looks like Tommy Lee Jones even in the book. I aint sayin I disliked it but I aint sayin I got it neither.

7. Michel Faber — Under the Skin

Caution, spoilers! A modern fable on any number of potential issues—animal cruelty? corporate greed? human brutality?—set in a version of the Highlands where multiple people hitchhike each day (I go frequently to the Highlands and I’ve never seen no hitchhikers—maybe Faber ate them all?) The story begins with our big-breasted heroine Isserley picking up a series of unemployed assholes and stabbing them in the buttocks with a stun chemical activated via her dashboard. She drives her victims, known as vodsels, to a secret plant where they are carved up and turned into gibbering grunting animals to be farmed for boutique meat. The story focuses on Isserley’s desire for freedom—she fled her homeland and her own kind (some human/bear hybrid creature) to take the fresh air of Scotland—as she struggles to adapt to her new vodsel body (her kind call themselves human beings) and fight the tyrannising corporate machine of her hometown, where she began life as a slave. The story is endearingly strange, extremely brutal, and is left pantingly open to interpretation. As a lapsed vegan I read the story from an animal perspective: vodsel farming being almost as brutal as cow or chicken farming (but not quite). On the whole: Faber invokes the warped worlds of Will Self, especially Great Apes, David Twohy’s underrated sci-fi thriller The Arrival, and early Gene Hackman flick Prime Cut. It’s all here in this subcutaneous chillerfest.

8. Lucy Ellmann — Man or Mango?

Eloise, with umlaut, is a self-hating woman of private means who loathes leaving the house. Speaking to the mailman causes her hours of trauma, as do basic phone or street interactions, particularly those with negative outcomes. She curls up with her cats making lists when she isn’t fretting about washing her hair. George, her ex, is an American poet composing an epic on ice hockey whose chauvinism is coming to an end with an acute case of writer’s block. After a hundred pages of existential cramp, the action switches to Connemara, Ireland, where a slew of oddities muscle into the narrative for a deeply disappointing murder mystery weekend experience. Ellmann’s third novel is her weakest—a shambling arrangement of back-and-forth character destructions with flipping narrative positions, replete with embedded quotations from Yeats, Melville, and bee studies. The emotional truffles on offer include the prickling hints at Eloise’s guilt at helping murder her parents, and the beastliness of her hermit grandmother, but ostensibly this is a story about two mad people who stop being mad for two minutes to realise they’re painfully in love. Some delightfully acerbic, compulsive and manic writing here. (And if you haven’t done so yet, go and read Dot in the Universe).

9. Émile Zola — The Kill

If I had to sum up The Kill in one clause (and this clause is coming up now so get ready) I’d say it’s about Haussmannisation and incest. Baron Haussmann transformed Paris during the Second Empire—a period of absolutely fantastic debauchery—where francs flowed in the streets and enterprising capitalists were free to make a monetary killing. So we have Saccard, a heartless but forgiving cash-seeker interested in power and lucre, who marries into wealth to prevent a scandal. He marries Renée, a carefree sensualist taken with Saccard’s effeminate son Maxime, a rotter who pleasures himself beneath the skirts of society ladies. This novel is the most exhausting Zola so far (except Germinal—don’t get me started), stuffed with long spooling descriptions of the old buildings, some exquisite, some supersize. A few chapters in the semi-incestuous romance becomes the dominant plot, and Zola’s remarkable depiction of Renée’s descent into debauched behaviour is intoxicating and thrilling. Unlike most characters of this ilk, she doesn’t collapse spread-eagled at the altar of Jesus and repent her frolics to all passing monks. She retains her pearly wonder after her husband’s fleeced her fortune and she’s doomed to a wintry cabin with nothing but the thoughts of romping in the hothouse with her stepson. I loved Renée. Anyway. Great novel.

10. Kurt Vonnegut — Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons

This collection of nonfiction demonstrates amply why so many people fall headlong in love with Vonnegut—all aspects of his cranky humanity, his unimpeachable morality, his hard-won cynicism are on show over these twenty-five pieces. The title isn’t particularly catchy: readers of Cat’s Cradle will recognise the terms which Vonnegut says represent his dabblings in nonfiction. Not so. Among the brilliance here includes his take on SF as a literary art, his ornery take on the moon landing and a loving portrayal of mystic Madame Blavatsky. The subtitle here is ‘opinions,’ and fierier pieces include ‘In a Manner That Must Shame God Himself’ which napalms the Nixon presidency, a provocative piece on Nigeria ‘Biafra: A People Betrayed,’ and a brief homage to Hunter S. Thompson ‘A Political Disease,’ where Vonnegut invents Thompson’s Disease for those betrayed by their leaders to the point of mental collapse (Thompson cured himself of his disease with a shotgun in 2005. So it goes). The inclusion of several public speeches and throwaway shavings detract from the urgency somewhat, but the Playboy interview ends the collection on a marvellously lucid note. Ah, the days Playboy was a respected literary organ! I hope Nicole Ritchie’s favourite book is Slaughterhouse-Five, I really do. A must-read for ALL Vonnegut fans. That’s you!

11. Ali Smith — The Seer

Ali Smith is also a playwright of local note, and before I discuss her only play in print, I want to express my vexation at the word playwright. This one, more than any other word in the English language, is designed to confuse bad spellers, dyslexics and first-time learners. Why must the second syllable be a mash-up of ‘right’ and ‘write?’ Where’s the logic there? A person who writes plays should be a play playwrite. The play writer isn’t always right—in fact, most of the shows I see at the Edinburgh Fringe are so wrong there should be a second category of playwrongs for appalling writers. Ha. How droll. Enough! This play was performed in 2006 in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (the Islands are some of those crusty bits not attached to the Scottish mainland, the ones that aren’t merely hills with sheep), and brings Smith’s inventive humour to the form. Of course, this being Smith, she’s determined to bring something fresh and clever to the stage, hence the fourth-wall breaking larks going on here. It has the wisdom and charm of an Alasdair Gray play, but brought into the 21stC with a slight shade of lesbianism. I’m sorry I missed it. Ali’s other performed plays were Fifteen Minutes and Just.

12. Mikhail Bulgakov — A Country Doctor’s Notebook

No one likes going to the doctor, even if the doctor is a hunk with the most fabulous cheekbones (like mine), or a hottie with the prettiest ass this side of the donkey sanctuary (like yours). When we look back at the history of medicine, we realise, although (in America) being sick costs money, at least we aren’t having leeches shoved down our pants, amputations sans anaesthesia, or teeth extractions done by nurses. Bulgakov’s short fictions are drawn from his time as a doctor in a provincial backwater treating thick peasants, where patients bitch out the doc for a syphilis diagnosis, ignorant mothers refuse to let him save their children, and millers take twelve doses of medicine at once to speed things up. Idiots! Several stories read like deleted scenes from Casualty (or ER), and the longest ‘Morphine’ is a stark portrayal of addiction. My favourite, ‘The Blizzard,’ tells of a snowstorm where poor Mikhail nearly loses his toes. ‘The Murderer’ is also gently subversive and ironic, telling of an army doctor who blows holes in his Captain. (Bastard had it coming!) These are less contentious stories from the master satirist, but well worth a read.

13. Kurt Vonnegut — Palm Sunday

The sequel to the bestselling smash Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons contains an unholy amount of Vonnegut’s semi-profound public speeches (semi-profound as a good thing), hewn together with a great deal of amiable rambling and autobiographical detail. For a thorough account of Vonnegut’s impressive lineage—descended from prosperous Germans, no less—and illuminating accounts of his early life (far less torturous than the gloss he gives in some of his prefaces), this is an indispensable collection. A self-interview, as quoted in Oriana’s review, and several contentious digressions about the writer’s life are of interest to eager MFA students who want to slurp up his brilliance, and for anyone less who can listen to Vonnegut lovingly for hours and months and years. (Me). On a less interesting note, I read this book entirely on a Sunday. Next up, John Barth’s The Friday Book entirely on a Friday. Go tedious conformism!

14. Mikhail Bulgakov — Diaboliad & Other Stories

Four stories. ‘Diaboliad’ is a farcical satire on bureaucratic absurdity, a surreal reworking of Dostoevsky’s The Double that clouds the narrative’s clarity with too many oddities. ‘No. 13—The Elpit Workers’ Commune’ is even more strange, an over-the-top blackly comic story about a collapsing building and the ensuing casualties. The tone is extremely uneven and lacking in a narrative viewpoint or point of focus. ‘A Chinese Tale’ is a little too time-specific to have any contemporary value. ‘The Adventures of Chichikov’ is the redeemer: a brisk riff on Gogol’s Dead Souls with some light metafictive flickers. Some editions contain the novella The Fatal Eggs which is a brilliant SF dalliance and one of Bulgakov’s most successful satires. Shame this one didn’t.

15. Vladimir Nabokov — Look at the Harlequins!

Vladimir was such a scream in his dotage! Honestly, everyone’s favourite arch stylist could fill the Apollo with this material. This is his final novel (barring the recently published index cards arrangement), and Vladimir goes laughing to his grave with a devilishly clever riff on his own life and works. From his early days as an extremely wealthy sophisticate, ripping his first love’s never-to-be-completed noir novel to pieces, to his time as a lecherous old professor lusting after his own daughter, all the myths about the man are lampooned in his customarily exquisite prose. His succession of wives form the meat of the novel, especially the tender portrayal of his first wife (as expounded in his debut novel Mary). All aspects of the Nabokov canon are sent up, from the enfeebled English translators of his Russian works (Vladimir would end up translating a bulk of his work himself) to the nympholepsy for nymphettes that would tar him as literature’s Dirty Old Bastard. So yes: those glorious, unwinding sentences are in evidence, dripping with irony, wordplay and mean wit. See also the brilliant novella Transparent Things.

16. Raymond Queneau — We Always Treat Women Too Well

This novel parodies cheap noir novels being sold by the shovel in the 1940s. Holed up in a Dublin post office, a group of Irish rebels hold hostage the canny temptress Gertie Girdle, and one by one, as the English crush their insurgency, fall sway to her peculiar charms. Dismissed as a crude failure upon publication, Queneau’s pseudonymous novel certainly lards more sex and swearing into the action than in his screwball comedies, but the parody is clearly delineated from the ludicrous dialogue and the nods to Joyce. Despite the filth this is unmistakably a Queneau novel—zippy chapters, perfect comedic descriptions, broader backdrops of cantankerous protest against trends. A hoot, a veritable hoot! (Though several theses could be written on its sexual politics—don’t probe too deeply). See also Boris Vian’s I Spit on Your Graves.

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