The OF Blog

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

2014 Booker Prize longlist announced

This year, American writers were eligible for consideration for the first time and four were selected to the 2014 shortlist (Ferris, Fowler, Hustvedt, Powers).  Don't know much about these books yet, but I shall...soon.  The Fowler I read last year and plan on reviewing it later this year and I already had the Mitchell pre-ordered.  Likely will order the Hustvedt first out of these others and then wait and see for the shortlist to be announced.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent's Tail)
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J,  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape) 
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O'Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

Cristovão Tezza, O Professor

Acordou de um sono difícil:  sobre algo que parecia um leito, estava abraçado ao inimigo, que tentava aproximar os lábios dos seus.  Não quis ser ríspido, entretanto, empurrá-lo para longe, como seria o óbvio, talvez agredi-lo com um soco; apenas desviou o rosto, dizendo algo que agora não conseguia mais ouvir, na claridade da manhã.  Mas eram movimentos gentis, ele percebeu; tentava afastar-se dele com delicadeza, como quem desembarca de uma cama em que a mulher dorme e não deve ser acordada.  O inimigo:  sim, ele imagina que teve um, durante a vida inteira, e agora ele vinha assombrar até seus sonhos, com a sua proximidade pegajosa.  Ficou intrigado, no gelo de quem acorda, com o fato de não se perturbar com a evidente sugestão sexual, aqueles lábios envelhecidos quase tocando os seus, uma imagem tão forte que não conseguiria mais esquecê-la, não esqueceria jamais, ele se assombrou, como se tivesse um interminável futuro pela frente, relembrando o sonho que viveu em 1952, criança, caindo de um desfiladeiro e salvand-se com a força de um grito – a mãe veio velà-lo, e lembra-se nitidamente daquela mão protetora nos cabelos, mais de 60 anos atrás.  Jamais passou a mão nos cabelos de seu filho, mas os tempos eram outros, mais duros – ou apenas ele é que sempre se imaginou uma pessoa dura.  Ora – e ele sacudiu a cabeça, voltando ao início.  Quanto tempo?  Setenta – e olhou os dedos, movendo-os lentamente, sentindo a breve dor que acompanhava os gestos ao amanhecer.  Não importa.  Chegando aos 71, ele corrigiu a si mesmo.  A imagem da queda permaneceu, e era como se novamente caísse, o vazio no peito, a sombra do pânico, a montanha-russa na alma.  Tudo é química, disse em voz alta em defesa, tudo é química, esses comprimidos, ele acrescentou, a voz baixinha agora, que ninguém ouvisse, tudo é química, eu sou vítima desses experimentos em pó em forma de comprimidos – e enfim sorriu, como se a simples explicação suprimisse toda a cadeia de desconcertos do amanhecer. (pp. 6-7 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Woke up from a difficult dream: over something that looked like a bed, he was hugging the enemy, who tried to bring their lips to his. Did not mean to be harsh, however, push him away, as would be  obvious, maybe hit him with a punch; he just looked away, saying something now that could not be heard, in the morning lightBut they were gentle movements, he realized; trying to get away from him with delicacy, as if disembarking from a bed in which a woman sleeps and should not be awakened. The enemy: yes, he imagines that had one, for a lifetime, and now he was coming to haunt his dreams, with its sticky proximity. He was intrigued, in the ice which wakes him, with the fact unperturbed with the obvious sexual innuendo, those aged lips almost touching his, such a strong image that he could no longer forget it, would not ever forget it, he marveled, like he had a long future ahead, remembering the dream that he lived in 1952, growing up, falling from a cliff and saving himself with the force of a shout - the mother came sailing in, and remember that sharply protective hand in hair over 60 years ago. She never ran a hand through her son's hair, but times were different, harder - or just that he's always thought hard. Now - and he shook his head, returning to the beginning. How long? Seventy - and he looked at his fingers, moving them slowly, feeling the brief pain which accompanied his movements at dawnIt does not matterReaching 71, he corrected himself. This fall remained, and it was like falling again, an empty chest, shadow panic, a roller coaster of the soul. Everything is chemical, he said aloud in defense, everything is chemical, these pills, he added, a tiny voice now, that no one would hear, everything is chemical, I'm a victim of these powder experiments in pill form - and he finally smiled, as the simple explanation abolish the entire chain of the disconcerting dawn. (my rough translation)

What memories do the near-elderly have of their lives.  Looking back, do they confound desire with memory, memory with fact?  Should we, at any age, trust ourselves to recall "how it truly was," as Leopold von Ranke was fond of saying?  Brazilian writer Cristavão Tezza's latest novel, O Professor (The Professor), explores these questions in an engaging fashion.  His protagonist, the newly-retired history professor Heliseu, is about to be honored with an award commemorating his decades of service to his university.  It is a prospect that frightens him, being so used to observing history and not taking on the role of being a living relic of a passing Brazil.  Over a period of hours leading up to the actual award presentation, he reflects back on his life, touching upon cultural events that still influence Brazilian society today.

The opening paragraph, translated quickly and perhaps not as elegantly as it could be after a few drafts, signals to the reader just how nuanced and evocative Heliseu's thoughts are going to be.  In reading it, I could not help but notice some structural similarities to some of William Faulkner's writing, not surprising consider Tezza has written at length on Faulkner in the past.  In particular, it is the continuing problems of time and memory and how Tezza incorporates them into this free-flowing, almost stream-of-consciousness writing, that reminds me at times of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!.  Yet while elements of O Professor may resemble Faulkner's approach toward untangling that Southern historical-cultural version of the Gordian Knot, it is very much its own creature, exploring a society that is not only dealing with the aftermath of the mid-20th century dictatorship, but also with a rapidly-changing 21st century culture that is becoming more "global" and perhaps less rooted in Brazilian history.

Heliseu's thoughts are a mixture of regrets, stalled hopes, and flashes of hope.  As he recalls his years of teaching history, especially that of the archaic Portuguese language of the 10th and 11th centuries, curious, almost dream-like elements appear.  He especially has difficulties coming to terms with his son's homosexuality and how the stigma of previous decades has largely faded, changing into something else that he doesn't quite grasp.  It is an exquisite portrait of an old man feeling lost in the present, yet with a past that he himself distorts into something that it quite wasn't.  

With these shifts in topic and perspective, it can be difficult at times for the reader to keep track of what all Tezza is narrating through this professor's reminiscences.  Yet perhaps that is precisely the point, that in having a meandering narrator slowly unpack his recollections for display, more pointed social commentaries can be embedded in a deeply personal narrative.  Certainly by novel's end, when he holds the commemorative paper in his hand, Heliseu's story feels complete, yet with that sense that there has been more told than what the narrator himself has realized.  O Professor was a challenging read for me in my third or fourth language and doubtless there were elements that I missed due to the fact that I'm not a Brazilian native, but from what I glimpsed, this was a very well-constructed and written tale that perhaps serves as a metaphor for how we all may feel when we sense age, and history with it, overtaking us, consigning us to its dustbins. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't

The dog is gone.  We miss him.  When the doorbell rings, no one barks.  When we come home late, there is no one waiting for us.  We still find his white hairs here and there around the house and on our clothes.  We pick them up.  We should throw them away.  But they are all we have left of him.  We don't throw them away.  We have a wild hope – if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again. 

– "The Dog Hair," (p. 11, iPad iBooks e-edition)

On Thanksgiving Day 2011, my family lost our dog, Ally.  Nearly 14.5 years old, she was a mixed-breed with extremely thick black fur that would turn brown during the summer.  It took months for her to shed this coat and clumps of fur would be found all around the perimeter of the house (she was strictly an outdoors dog who hated the thought of ever being inside).  I remember seeing her really ill that November day, laboring to breathe, much less move, when I left for an aunt's house for Thanksgiving celebration.  Three hours later, I was the first to arrive back home.  She had limped over to her favorite hollow and she was stretched out, as if she were sunning herself (I remember it was a partly cloudy, relatively warm day).  I called her name, several times, then I went over to where she was.  Her mouth was slightly open, as if in a half-pant, half-smile, eyes glazed over.  I called my brother and told him that she had passed.  He and my parents left the family gathering then and we gathered around her (I have an aversion for touching dead bodies and wouldn't pick her up).  We got an old shower curtain and wrapped her in it and then we dug a shallow grave underneath a pine tree, near the fence where she used to lie down and bark at the cows. 

Yet for months later, it was like she had never left, as we would find well into the spring clumps of her fur sticking to a stick near the detached garage or trapped under a pile of leaves being raked for spring cleaning.  In reading "The Dog Hair" from Lydia Davis's latest collection, Can't and Won't, I was reminded of that feeling of nearness in loss, of a semi-presence of the dearly departed.  It was the first of her dozens of short, sometimes flash fictions and poems that I bookmarked, because it encapsulates so well in one short paragraph the emotions that I felt during the half-year after my dog's death.  It also serves as a good example of the sorts of stories Davis narrates.

If the stories of our lives were to be made into fictions, almost invariably they would be tales of moments, of choices made or abandoned, with the uncanny mixing with the quotidian with reckless abandon.  In stories like "A Woman, Thirty," we might find ourselves thinking of people we know that are similar to this woman who doesn't want to leave her childhood home, doesn't want to risk being in an unloving relationship, and yet who also yearns for some man, any man, to at least regard her in some fashion.  Davis has that rare talent of capturing in just a few lines the conflicted emotions that we feel everyday.  Sometimes, the stories, such as "The Execution," turn a dark mirror toward us, forcing us to confront the more violent, sordid feelings that we collectively possess.  We so often are, as she states here, charlatans, hiding the worst (and sometimes best) of ourselves from others, attempting to make all blind to what has just occurred.

Some books demand thousands of words for its depths to be plumbed.  Can't and Won't, however, is not one of those works.  It is such a quotable, memorable collection that a judicious quoting, followed by noting that Davis utilizes short, penetrating passages to explore facets of humanity, is sufficient.  After all, these stories are short because like ourselves, they are bundles of moments in which we later unpack, deriving meanings that may or may not be independent from how we interpret the world around us.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Shane Jones, Crystal Eaters

It feels good to believe in one hundred.

They walk through the village wondering how many they have left.  Everything is hit with sun.  Tin roofs glare.  Wooden structures glow.  The city appeared at the horizon like a mountain range decades ago but it's close now – dangerously close and growing closer by the day – and believing in one hundred is a distraction.  A long road connects the village to the crystal mine.  A man named Z. mumbles his number and walks by the home of Remy.

Inside Remy's home Harvak the dog is on the table.  With each breath his stomach balloons pink skin.  His left eye drips crystal (Chapter 5, Death Movement, Book 8) and his count lowers.  Remy thinks about lying face down and entering a place where she wouldn't hurt.  She pets Harvak's head ten times but nothing happens.  She touches a Harvak hair on his leg longer than the rest.  When she pulls the hair like a rope attached to an anchor, fingers over fingers instead of hand over hand, the end result is a hole with zero inside.  She spins the hair into a wreath.  With one finger she taps the hole ten times but again nothing happens. (p. 183)

Shane Jones's latest novel, Crystal Eaters, is one of those novels that defy easy description.  It is a novel of growing up, but no, that's not really it, as the focus is not on increases but decreases, as the chapter and page numbers illustrate.  It might be just a novel about mortality, but then there are references to urbanization and familial life that do not jibe well with just this.  It would be easy to dismiss it as merely a dreamscape, a surrealist piece that doesn't really connect with our quotidian lives, but those connects do exist.  So what should we make of Crystal Eaters?

The key, I suspect, is not to "make" anything of it, but to take it in as it is and consider its various parts as possessing an internal consistency that might not be readily apparent.  The core of the narrative revolves around a young girl, Remy, who has a sick mother who seems to be on the verge of death.  She, along with the people of her local village, have this belief that objects possess a number of "crystals" (this may or may not be metaphorical, as there are real crystals as well) at birth that can be lost through various accidents or just natural aging that eventually lowers the count to 0, or death.  Humans are born with 100, dogs with 40, for example, and as the book begins its countdown, Remy's dog, Harvak, has reached his end.  Remy spends part of the next few chapters fretting over the accidents that lowered his crystal count before shifting her worry to her mother.  She narrates the legend of a black crystal that may have the mythical power of reversing the crystal loss, prolonging a person's life.  The majority of her narrative arc focuses on discovering this crystal and feeding it to her mother.

This alone would make for an interesting allegory, but Jones adds more layers to the narrative that deepen it and make it far more complex.  Remy's brother, Pants, is in prison for something akin to dope running.  It turns out that he has indeed discovered the mythical black crystal and has figured out that when ingested, it does do some interesting things to the human mind and body.  Later, as his discovery spreads, the effects are shown in some very interesting ways.  Jones in particular utilizes heat and vision descriptors to narrate these physiological changes.  This creates an oddly distorted view of what is transpiring, as if the narration were viewed through the prism of a tweaker.

This is especially apparent with the rapid encroachment of the now-nearby city, with buildings sprouting up daily as though they were bamboo.  This, along with the belief that the sun is steadily drawing closer to the black crystals that seem to be bursting upwards to embrace it, comprise two village beliefs.  Jones revisits these beliefs through character observations about changes in horizontal perspective and in the shimmering quality of the heat as it plasters itself to the villagers.  His vivid descriptions enhances the hallucinatory aspect to the narrative, making for a twisted reality that encompasses several elements at once without it ever seeming as disjointed as it should if it were told in a more traditional narrative form.

It is almost useless to discuss elements such as plot progression and character development here, as Jones's narrative plays more freely and loosely with time and space.  There is a compression of both that occurs here, similar to that what many experience in their dreams.  Readers subconsciously supply many of the details, not so much for events as for what their import might be.  The result is a hazy story that contains elements of several allegories:  death-fear, familial crisis, drug addiction, climate change, and urbanization dangers.  Yet this list really does not get at the heart of Crystal Eaters.  For that to occur, the reader herself would need to take it all in and twist it around a bit to suit herself.  This may not be what many readers want to do, but Crystal Eaters is that rare sort of story that depends upon active reader contemplation in order for it to achieve its full effect.  It certainly is one of the weirder stories that I've read this year, but it is one that I am glad that I read.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review plans for this week

Since completing the 40 reviews in 40 days personal challenge on the 16th, I've taken a mini-break from reviewing here.  However, I plan on reviewing several books this week.  Below are the titles (not in exact order) that I aim to have reviewed by Saturday evening:

Shane Jones, Crystal Eaters

Andrés Neuman, Talking About Ourselves

Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't:  Stories

Cristovão Tezza, O Professor (Portuguese)

Lily King, Euphoria

Can Xue, The Last Lover

I've read all but the Xue (about 40 pages into that one) and there were some promising things about each that I liked when I read them over the past few weeks.  Each is very different from the others and that perhaps is a very good thing.  Also finished Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land, but I'm going to wait until the first week in August before I post that review.  I will say that it was a very good conclusion and there are things about it that are lingering with me now, but those are more personal memory triggers than anything that should be a central part of a review.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

June 2014 Reads

June was a slower reading month for me, perhaps in part because I spent most of the month engaging in the "40 in 40" review project.  I managed to complete that by mid-July, but as a result, I only read 24 books in June.  14 of the 24 books have already been reviewed, with another one to be reviewed later this month.  At the halfway point of the year, was close or exceeded my yearly goals for the four foreign languages I targeted for more reading this year.  Now for the list:

135  Antonio Scurati, Il padre infedele (Italian; Premio Strega finalist; very good)

136  Giorgio Pressburger, Nel regno oscuro (Italian; very good)

137  Herta Müller, La bèstia del cor (Catalan translation; good)

138  Carmen Lyra, Cuentos de mi Tía Panchita (Spanish; short story collection; good)

139  Jorge Franco, El mundo de afuera (Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

140  Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans (already reviewed)

141  Kyung-sook Shin, I'll Be Right There (already reviewed)

142  Kofi Awoonor, The Promise of Hope (Poetry; already reviewed)

143  Laura Restrepo, Delirio (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

144  Hernán Rivera Letelier, El arte de la resurrección (re-read; Spanish; Premio Alfaguara winner; already reviewed)

145  Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief (already reviewed)

146  David James Poissant, The Heaven of Animals (short story collection; already reviewed)

147  Lily King, Euphoria (review forthcoming)

148  Porochista Khakpour, The Last Illusion (already reviewed)

149  Roxane Gay, An Untamed State (already reviewed)

150  Sean Ennis, Chase Us (short story collection; already reviewed)

151  Thomas Ligotti, The Spectral Link (short story collection; already reviewed)

152  Jérôme Ferrari, Le sermon sur la chute de Rome (French; Prix Goncourt winner; very good)

153  François Weyergons, Trois jours chez ma mère (French; Prix Goncourt winner; very good)

154  Giorgio Pressburger, Storia umana e inumana (Italian; Premio Strega semifinalist; decent but not as good as the first volume of this series, mentioned above)

155  Pierre Lemaitre, Au revoir là-haut (French; Prix Goncourt winner; very good)

156  Jâcques-Pierre Amette, La Maîtresse de Brecht (French; Prix Goncourt winner; very good)

157  Smith Henderson, Fourth of July Creek (already reviewed)

158  Rabih Alameddine, An Unncessary Woman (already reviewed)


Updated Yearly Goals:


Spanish:  36/50 (ahead of pace by 11; 4 read this month)

Portuguese:  18/50 (behind pace by 7; 0 read this month)

French:  24/50 (behind pace by 1; 4 read this month)

Italian:  25/50 (on pace; 3 read this month)

Women writers:  51/158 (behind pace by 3%; 8 read this month, or 33% for the month)

Friday, July 18, 2014

What the Birthday Squirrel Bought for Me in 2014

Well, another birthday has passed and for those bibliophiles who are curious about what book-related materials I received for my birthday, here are the details:

I received nearly $200 in money (which I deposited) and a $50 iTunes card.  With these I purchased the following:

E-Books:


Paula Bomer, Inside Madelaine (short story collection)

Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor

Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't (short story collection)

Richard Thomas (ed.), The New Black (anthology)

Can Xue, The Last Lover

Catherine Lacey, Nobody is Ever Missing

Lucius Shepard, Beautiful Blood


Books: (will arrive over the next 1-3 weeks)


William T. Vollmann, Last Stories and Other Stories (short story collection)

Scott Cheshire, High as the Horses' Bridles 

Shane Jones, Crystal Eaters

Simon Ings, Wolves

Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls

Cara Hoffman, Be Safe I Love You

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready


And while not bought with Birthday Squirrel money/gift cards, I also received a review copy of Lev Grossman's trilogy-concluding The Magician's Land.  Me being me, I read the final chapters first and it ties everything together in interesting ways.  Will post a review around the August 5th release, but it's likely to get a good review from me if the beginning and middle are anywhere near what the conclusion was.



 
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