I received this book as a Christmas present from my boss over a year ago. In fact, everyone in the office received a copy – that’s how much our boss wI received this book as a Christmas present from my boss over a year ago. In fact, everyone in the office received a copy – that’s how much our boss wanted us to read it. Before you start wondering what sort of wonderful place I worked at, let me clarify it was a literary agency, so such things were totally commonplace. So despite the terrible cover, and a rather idiotic blurb I knew it would be a fine book.
No review of Ferrante’s book is complete without a mention of how no one knows who Ferrante is or even if she exists as an individual woman at all. Personally, I find this whole mystery of little interest as I share her view that all that the author wants to say she should say in the book and there is no need for the entire marketing circus.
Ferrante’s Naples novels have been compared to Knausgaard’s magnum opus because both authors can be characterised by their hyperreal scrutiny which seemingly can only be achieved in autobiographical novels. The autobiographical component is official in case of Knausgaard and alleged in Ferrante’s. Additionally, Knausgaard has happily joined the marketing circus, which is why I find Ferrante’s presumed exhibitionism a lot more palatable.
These books defiantly ignore all creative writing advice and cheerfully tell and not show, abandon all sensible plot structure and introduce as many characters as they feel like, not really caring whether that whole cast is in any way necessary. Neither do they have time for stylistic flourishes. Ferrante’s prose is bare; the language takes a back seat and is nothing more than a tool to the narrative that is pushed forward by its own urgency. What we are left with, though, is so vivid and authentic that no carefully polished novel could compete with it. This is great news. Rejoice, people, because in the age when it is possible to get a DEGREE in novel writing (without having to write anything of significance), comes a book which just doesn’t give a shit and still manages to steal the hearts of thousands.
I don’t suppose I have to explain what this book is about, because you have other reviews for that. But in short it’s about the intense friendship and rivalry between two girls growing up in the impoverished outskirts of Naples. You might argue it’s a book about female experience, and to an extent it certainly is, but judging by how much men love this book, I’d say it’s rather universal. But then, I generally feel female experience, once stripped of all telling signs could be pretty universal, because, you know, women are people too. Anyway, to me this book was more about class than gender. That constant anger, violence, the ‘let’s get them before they get us’ feel permeates the novel. And the moral, if ‘My Brilliant Friend’ has a moral at all, is that you can take a girl out of the Naples slums, but you can’t take the Naples slums out of the girl. Make no mistake, though. This is by no means an emotionally manipulative misery memoir. This is a story of childhood that simply doesn’t know it’s underprivileged. ...more
I was reading the story called ‘Xmas Cruise’ while on the bus going to a party. It was about an Antarctic cruise and I thought it was quite a theme foI was reading the story called ‘Xmas Cruise’ while on the bus going to a party. It was about an Antarctic cruise and I thought it was quite a theme for this collection, as there already was a story about an Arctic cruise. But then I remembered Atwood mentioned she thought of many stories for this collection while on an Arctic cruise, so it made sense. And much later I realised I wasn’t reading Atwood’s ‘Stone Mattress’. In fact I had finished ‘Stone Mattress’ about a month before and then I marvelled at how I could have gotten so confused over which book I was reading. Maybe I wasn’t even going to the party. Maybe I was coming back from it.
Nonetheless (and in my defence), Margaret Atwood and Patricia A. McKillip have something in common and I would venture to say it’s a sense of wonder. That sense of wonder is what makes stories in ‘Wonders of the Invisible World’ so enchanting even if they often fail to bring things to a satisfying conclusion. McKillip shows us slivers of magical worlds and we need to just accept those slivers as enough and not expect tightly structured plots or wait for the punchline. At the end I was sometimes left slightly frustrated - there were unanswered questions and absent resolutions, but the dreams induced by this collection were always wonderful (in the most basic sense of the word – that is full of wonder).
We miss and crave a world full of magic – that’s why we read fantasy books. But authors often forget that their characters who live in those fantastical worlds should be like us, therefore still looking for more, for another form of magic. That relentless search for enchantment and the supernatural was captured by McKillip so beautifully here. Many fantasy books, paradoxically, are thin on amazement. They often feature elaborate worlds with complex magic systems and a plethora of marvellous creatures but eventually make it all so pedestrian. If you want to know what I’m talking about read “Out of the Woods”, a story about a wizard who toiled at his wizardry and had no time for magic, or the eponymous story of the collection in which someone gets just the sort of supernatural they have been praying for. In fact, every story in this collection tackles this theme in some way, so read them all. ...more
‘The Laughing Monsters’ is a twist on the spy thriller – the twist being that it’s not very thrilling. This book just really doesn’t know what it want‘The Laughing Monsters’ is a twist on the spy thriller – the twist being that it’s not very thrilling. This book just really doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up.
It's a story of selfishness and moral decay set against the backdrop of the cruel world of clichéd Africa. I suppose it must be hard to write about Africa, especially if you're a white middle-aged American dude - you're going to run into trouble no matter what you do. It's even more upsetting because Denis Johnson spent a considerable amount of time in Africa covering the civil war in Liberia, so I would've loved for him not to fall onto the same metaphors and the same short-hand symbolic pictures. The characters move through three different countries but they are all perfectly blended into one generic blob of 'Africa'. The ease with which I could imagine everything he was describing was worrying. It's not that these things don't exist or are not true, they do exist and they are true but so are acacia trees and sunsets but we should really stop putting that on the cover of every book which take place in Africa. I just expected more freshness from America's 'most underrated writer'.
It is what is described as a 'masculine' book, meaning there are a lot men doing manly things, there are a lot gratuitous sex scenes and all women appearing in the novel are interchangeable and consist only of their breasts. They are invariably cardboard characters with no personality, motivations or goals, at best they are plot devices. This is what really irks me. I get that the narrator is a misogynistic asshole and I don't have a problem with that. I know he doesn't see women beyond their breasts but there is a way to show that while also writing women as real characters - you know, just so I know it's the narrator that's sexist, not the author. A good guideline on how to write women so that they appear like real people is to imagine they are people. Mind blown, eh?
Frankly, it's a book easy to rip apart. It’s quite obviously written by a skilled author who just wasn’t trying very hard. World weary crooks/spies in a hell-hole Africa. Are all these clichés intentional? Is this a pastiche?
Michael Adriko is the only great character and the book’s only saving grace; charismatic, mysterious, a bit kooky, and definitely a conman. He says wonderful things like: “Oh my goodness, Nair, you just tickle them in their terrorism bone, and they ejaculate all kinds of money.” We're as hooked on Michael as is Nair, the narrator. Interestingly enough, even though the narrator is quite racist it didn’t stop him from presenting Michael as a three-dimensional character.
But then Johnson brings us this boring and utterly unconvincing love triangle involving Nair, the narrator, Michael and Davidia, who is African-American and beautiful. Even though she is the third main character here we know nothing other than the above and the fact she ‘sashays in an African way’ (or some such, I can't find the original quote). She is supposed to be educated and intelligent and God bloody knows why she is even there. Again, because of how cardboard she is, it's hard to believe that she is in love with Adriko.
One could argue it's a decent exploration of a white 'dude' psyche - a guy who writes tender love letters to his girlfriend 'at home' and callously fucks underage African prostitutes at the same time. What happens in Africa, stays in Africa. We're supposed to believe that the civilised rules don't apply there. Our concept of morality is irrelevant there according to guys like Nair.
There are some good scenes here, a skilfully created atmosphere, and it's clear that Johnson is a great writer on the cellular (words-sentences) level. This is what I still remember - a description of the smell of the detergent that the entire hotel had been cleaned with - "all that you fear we have killed" and other such nuggets. There are interesting observations about the prevalent paranoia and intelligence agencies as the new colonisers. But the novel doesn't work as a whole. It's a frustrating dream-like journey of constant setbacks and absolute inability to reach the destination which looks as if it should be a great read but doesn't deliver on any of the promises from the blurb. In one of the interviews Johnson said: "I told my editor Jonathan Galassi at FSG, “I’m not trying to be Graham Greene. I think I actually am Graham Greene." Seriously people, don’t ever say such things, don’t do it to yourself. You make it too easy for cantankerous reviewers like me when you then produce an infinitely inferior work.
I can't tell you how many times I've heard about Denis Johnson - and what I heard most was that he was criminally underrated, which I must say is a little ironic. I've heard some truly preposterous things like 'the best American writer alive' which is a hyperbole if I've ever heard one. I'm still willing to give him another chance but judging by this book alone I'd say he was overrated rather than underrated.
If you want something like "The Laughing Monsters" but better, (although equally confusing and meandering) I recommend the very first Booker Prize winner ‘Something to Answer for’ by P.H. Newby. ...more
Quite possibly this was nothing more than a potboiler. But since we’re talking about John Sutherland here, even a potboiler by him can prove perfectlyQuite possibly this was nothing more than a potboiler. But since we’re talking about John Sutherland here, even a potboiler by him can prove perfectly enjoyable. The idea behind this book is to create a sort of literary calendar, an almanac if you like, with a bit of bookish trivia, a mini essay for each day of the year.
The selection is completely arbitrary and doesn’t even pretend to be anything else and as expected it’s a mixed bag. Some entries are fascinating, some trivial but funny, some baffling by their obscurity (I learnt more about 17th century English poetry than I ever needed to). The authors did try to make sure it’s not all about dead white men, so there is enough gender and ethnic variety to fend off the accusations of racism or sexism, but they hardly ever explore any regions outside of England and America. Although, of course, that’s the area of the authors’ expertise, so we shouldn’t be very surprised.
I learnt a great many things from it, most of which I have already forgotten, but some will stay with me forever, like the fact that Philip Larkin had apparently a big penis, Ezra Pound was a fascist, Cabrera Infante (who died in 2005) requested that his ashes are to be kept unburied until after Castro’s regime is gone (they are still unburied), Kenneth Grahame went crazy and wouldn’t change his underwear for months, all the royalties from Peter Pan go to Great Ormond Hospital for Children in London (they actually passed a law in the UK to prevent this title entering the public domain), and that gothic romance became a way of talking about the unconscious before Freud gave us the vocabulary for it. ...more
It’s the sort of book you read in three hours and then think about it for ten.
It’s an elliptical novel which, while going back in time, circles closeIt’s the sort of book you read in three hours and then think about it for ten.
It’s an elliptical novel which, while going back in time, circles closer and closer to the original incident that set the whole thing in motion, the incident in which Sean, the narrator, lost his face (literally). His new condition of looking like a one person freak show has him practically house-bound, so he invents other worlds and sets his mail-subscription role playing games there. Sean is not the sort of guy who was very popular before. When his mother worries he would be lonely after he leaves the hospital, he says: “I was going to be lonely anyway.”
The whole thing is about choices, like in Trace Italian, Sean’s game. You ‘choose your own adventure’. But the choice is an illusion. You take all these turns, but you can never really lose, and you can never really win – that’s the way the whole thing is designed, to keep you playing. The most daring think you can do is to opt out and leave the game altogether, like Chris, the guy who quit on his own terms. Most of the time we don’t know why we do the things we do, the choices we make follow some unexplained impulses and we struggle to provide a coherent explanation to back up our decision making. Sometimes we decide the best thing to do would be to dig a hole and stay in it, and when we realise it was a mistake it’s too late and we’re too weak to crawl out. This happened in this book too. We don’t know why we do what we do at the time, let alone later. Our old selves are a mystery to us. We keep the memories but the hero of those memories is a stranger to us.
The phrase 'Wolf in White Van' comes from the supposed subliminal messages hidden in rock and metal songs. You know, if you play them backward, Satan will speak to you. This is also what this novel does with its back to front structure. So what is the hidden message here? Is there any? Or am I just hearing things because I decided I would hear them? Maybe the supposed message is just accidental or maybe it can be only understood by a chosen few. The narrator asks why the devil can’t speak clearly, why he hides and obscures his message, which seems rather counter-productive from the marketing point of view. Similar complaints were voiced by some reviewers who just wanted the book to speak to them clearly and explain everything in capital letters. Ha ha. That’s not how the devil talks. Or John Darnielle.
I would’ve probably given this book five stars if I was one of those sad, misunderstood teenagers. But I wasn’t. I did spend a lot of time alone but was perfectly content to get on with my strange projects. And I never felt there was something that needed understanding. Maybe I was just blessed with the right kind of parents but my diary was full of cringe-inducing entries in which I described how happy I was and how perfect the world was. I miss being that person. It wasn’t until I was 25 when a whole zoo moved into my head....more
Reading and reviewing this book is a delicate matter for two reasons. First of all, it was written by a friend of mine and reading books by friends isReading and reviewing this book is a delicate matter for two reasons. First of all, it was written by a friend of mine and reading books by friends is a dangerous pursuit because you’re often faced with the dilemma of losing a friend or your integrity as a reviewer.
Another pitfall of ‘Damn the Source’ is that it talks about the Polish experience in the UK – something that’s obviously a personal subject to me. The three waves of Polish immigration to the UK haven’t really created a literary voice on the island. The stories are few and far between, so every one of them runs the danger of becoming THE story – the single narrative defining the experience for the British reader. That’s why I’m so worried, I feel very proprietary about this. I don’t want The Story to become the one I don’t identify with in any way.
Happily for everyone involved, ‘Damn the source’ is a skilfully written book that presents a variety of stories which encompass the ‘Polish experience’ in all its richness. The unifying theme, other than the Polish factor, is a knife or a blade of some kind. It threateningly appears in every story in a different form, sometimes realising the threat and restrained at other times. I was impressed with the variety of voices and perspectives, something that truly showcases the author’s empathy and imagination (the two most important things I look for in writers, other than a firm grasp on the language). Marek admits to spending many years exploring worlds different form his own precisely to avoid being another white dude writer contemplating his own penis novel after novel (he might’ve phrased it differently). That’s why here we have intellectuals and petty criminals, women and men, teenagers and older people and it all culminates with what a heart-breaking story that I suspect is the most autobiographical one in the collection.
It is strange how on hand I’m so strict about the kind of Polish story I want out there but at the same time I discover myself so easily in immigrant stories from all over the world, because they all really explore the same theme of being the Other – that great place to be in where simultaneously you’re no-one but also a stand-in for everyone from your country or even ethnicity. As well as the sadness of trying to straddle the old country and the new country (and failing) and the overwhelming feeling of belonging nowhere, of only finding yourself at home during fleeting moments, some time at the dawn or dusk, when looking at the sky and smelling the air.
You will find all that in these stories and here is to hope that Marek will produce a full length novel that will be widely available. Meanwhile you can purchase one of the 200 numbered hand-bound copies here or wait for the ebook which is in the making, I hear. Or at least read this interview here...more