Ingeborg Bachmann was an Austrian writer, who died in 1973. I first read this collection of stories in 1978, while preparing for a German language exa...moreIngeborg Bachmann was an Austrian writer, who died in 1973. I first read this collection of stories in 1978, while preparing for a German language exam at the Goethe Institute (the title story of the collection was part of the assigned reading list).
It's hard to describe the appeal of these stories. Often as not, the narrator is well-traveled, European, slightly world-weary, not particularly sympathetic, so that's not it. I suspect it's her exploration of themes such as the choices made by successful people, and the consequences of those choices, difficulties in communicating, questions of language and translation - topics that resonate with me for one reason or another. These stories are probably not for everyone, but I still return to this collection every few years.(less)
Mary Jo Salter is one of my favorite living American poets. This collection of her work dates from 1989 and contains two extraordinarily moving poems....moreMary Jo Salter is one of my favorite living American poets. This collection of her work dates from 1989 and contains two extraordinarily moving poems. The first, in memory of her mother, may be found in full at this link:
Laurens van der Post was one of the people chosen as godfather to Britain's Prince William. Don't hold that against him though - he is also the author...moreLaurens van der Post was one of the people chosen as godfather to Britain's Prince William. Don't hold that against him though - he is also the author of this wonderful book and its sequel, "A Far Off Place", two of my favorite books when I was a teenager.
Set in the Kalahari, the book tells the story of a young boy, Francois, whose life changes for ever when he saves the life of a Bushman, Xhabbo. Van der Post explores the conflict between African and European cultures with sensitivity. I am normally impervious to nature writing, but van der Post's evocation of the Kalahari is impressive. The story is exciting, expertly told, and builds to an ominous climax. (Which will make you want to read the sequel, "A Far Off Place").
Although the books may find the most resonance with young adults, I would recommend them to anyone.(less)
Before there was Peter Hessler, there was Mark Salzman. This first book of his, Iron and Silk, a memoir of time spent in China, was totally charming....moreBefore there was Peter Hessler, there was Mark Salzman. This first book of his, Iron and Silk, a memoir of time spent in China, was totally charming. Excellent writing, a keen eye, and a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor marked Salzman as a writer to watch.
His subsequent writing career has been unorthodox, but interesting. I've not read all of his work, but the two subsequent books of his that I did read - Lying Awake and The Soloist – confirmed him as someone worth keeping up with. “True Notebooks : a Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” just arrived from Amazon and – based on dipping into it at random – promises to be terrific.
Quietly, unobtrusively, Salzman continues to impress me with his wit, insight, and humor. (less)
Flann O'Brien is surely Ireland's most neglected writer. Though his talent was on a par with the genius of his contemporaries, Joyce and Beckett, he h...moreFlann O'Brien is surely Ireland's most neglected writer. Though his talent was on a par with the genius of his contemporaries, Joyce and Beckett, he has never come close to achieving the same degree of recognition. There are several possible explanations for this. The simplest is that Joyce and Beckett managed to cut the umbilical cord - though Mother Ireland featured large in their writing, they both managed to make an escape, living the latter part of their lives in exile. This might not seem like a big thing, but the conservatism, stasis and repression that characterized Irish 'cultural life" in the first decades of the new Republic were truly horrendous. Dominance of the Catholic hierarchy was absolute, writers were subject to heavy censorship at the hands of both Church and State, the appetite for novelty was non-existent. This was the Ireland of "Angela's Ashes".
While Joyce and Beckett made their escape (hell, even the McCourts made their escape), Flann O'Brien stayed, working for most of his life in the Irish civil service. At Swim-Two-Birds, his first novel, was published in 1939. Although it was well-received (championed by Graham Greene, publicly acclaimed by both Joyce and Beckett), the timing was perhaps not the best. Europe, it is fair to say, had other things on its collective mind.
Some first novelists are tentative, growing into their craft over time. Even those who subsequently mess with the rules often start out on a conventional note (Joyce had to work up to the horror that is Finnegans Wake). But occasionally there surfaces a talent so brilliant that the rules go out the window. Bulgarov's "The Master and Margarita" is an obvious example - a masterpiece not only because of the author's genius, but because he also had the confidence to give free rein to his genius, parting company with more or less everything you might expect from a novel. "At Swim-Two-Birds" shows the same kind of dementedly funny, astonishingly brilliant, throw-caution-to-the-winds talent. It is sui generis, absolutely hilarious, and breathtakingly accomplished. It's hard to describe adequately, but I'll give it a shot.
From the very first paragraph, we are on notice that the book doesn't play by the conventional rules. The narrator, a literature student at University College Dublin, tells us that he disagrees with the notion that a book should have 'one beginning and one ending' and immediately proves it by providing three completely different openings. The first introduces the "Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class", another involves "Mr John Furriskey, who had the distinction of being born at the age of twenty-five, entering the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it", while the final opening features Ireland's legendary hero Finn MacCool, a man not only skilled in declaiming vast tracts of Irish epic verse, but absolutely hellbent on doing so. Within a few pages, characters from the three initially distinct stories are wandering in and out of each other's tales, with the situation being further complicated by the realization that John Furriskey is actually a character in a potboiler being dreamed up by yet another writer, Dermot Trellis, a scribbler so inferior that his characters ultimately rise up against him, refusing to act out the plot that Trellis has concocted for them. Add to the story the character of mad Sweeney, accursed bird-king of the Dal Riada, with a penchant for spouting serial mock heroic stanzas bewailing his fate. Mix in a "fast-drinking cast of students, fairies, cowpunchers and clerics", and there's never a dull moment. In the hands of a lesser author things could spiral disastrously out of control.
O'Brien not only pulls it off, he is hilariously funny, with a command of the language that is unmatched by any other author that I know.
There are paragraphs like this:
I like gull-cries and the twittering together of fine cranes. I like the surf-roar at Tralee, the songs of the three sons of Meadhra and the whistle of Mac Lughaidh. These also please me, man-shouts at a parting, cuckoo-call in May. I incline to like pig-grunting in Magh Eithne, the bellowing of the stag of Ceara, the whinging of fauns in Derrynish. The low warble of water-owls in Loch Barra also, sweeter than life that. I am fond of wing-beating in dark belfries, cow-cries in pregnancy, trout-spurt in a lake-top. Also the whining of small otters in nettle-beds at evening, the croaking of small-jays behind a wall, these are heart-pleasing. I am friend to the pilibeen, the red-necked chough, the parsnip land-rail, the pilibeen mona, the bottle-tailed tit, the common marsh-coot, the speckle-toed guillemot, the pilibeen sleibhe, the Mohar gannet, the peregrine plough-gull, the long-eared bush-owl, the Wicklow small-fowl, the bevil-beaked chough, the hooded tit, the pilibeen uisce, the common corby, the fish-tailed mud-piper, the cruiskeen lawn, the carrion sea-cock, the green-lidded parakeet, the brown bog-martin, the maritime wren, the dove-tailed wheatcrake, the beaded daw, the Galway hill-bantam and the pilibeen cathrach. A satisfying ululation is the contending of a river with the sea. Good to hear is the chirping of little red-breasted men in bare winter and distant hounds giving tongue in the secrecy of god. The lamenting of a wounded otter in a black hole, sweeter than harpstrings that.
O'Brien unleashed the book in 1939, hardly the time for "exuberant literary experiments". Sadly, when he submitted his equally subversive (and equally brilliant, IMO) second novel "The Third Policeman" to his publishers the following year, they rejected it. (Shades of Bulgarov, it was published posthumously in 1967)
In 1940, under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen (Miles of the little horses), O'Brien began to write a regular satirical column in The Irish Times. It was, depending on one's place in the power structure, loved, celebrated, admired, respected and feared. Several collections of the pieces have been published - if you want to see pure comic and satirical genius in action on a daily basis, they are indispensable. Definitely a fundamental part of Ireland's literary history and some of the funniest, smartest stuff to be found anywhere.
What I am strongly suggesting, folks, is that you take the trouble to seek out either of the two novels "At Swim-Two-Birds or The Third Policeman and devote an afternoon or an evening to sampling one of Ireland's forgotten geniuses.(less)
Immunology is hard. Dr Sompayrac is wonderful. Read this book, if you have even the remotest interest in how your body defends itself in a hostile wor...moreImmunology is hard. Dr Sompayrac is wonderful. Read this book, if you have even the remotest interest in how your body defends itself in a hostile world.
You could read it in a weekend. You will be a better, more interesting person, if you so.
Or you could watch Seinfeld re-runs and add that amount to your time in purgatory.
A heartbreaking story about the clash of two cultures, with horrible consequences, wonderfully and sensitively told by Anne Fadiman, a writer whom I a...moreA heartbreaking story about the clash of two cultures, with horrible consequences, wonderfully and sensitively told by Anne Fadiman, a writer whom I admire tremendously.(less)
I'm not sure why I love Jane Gardam's writing as much as I do. She bowls me over. I'm hoping that it's more than the fact that she writes about the ki...moreI'm not sure why I love Jane Gardam's writing as much as I do. She bowls me over. I'm hoping that it's more than the fact that she writes about the kind of people I grew up with; my background is solid upper middle class - strong emphasis on education, high parental expectations, all that good stuff, so that the academics, barristers, doctors and other professionals who populate her fiction form a milieu which is instantly recognizable to me. But it is more than that - she is a bloody good writer, creating indelible characters that stay with you in prose that is terrifically effective without ever calling attention to itself.
(OK. Let me go on the record, in case you haven't figured it out by now. I am not a particular fan of fiction that's clever/flashy/gimmicky because far more often than not it signals an author who's insecure, narcissistic, or both and is usually a harbinger of major deficiencies in important aspects like characterization and plot. I could name names, but the list would go on for days..)
Gardam's calm, self-assured style may have something to do with her late start as a writer - her first novel for adults was published when she was 50. When "Old Filth" came out, in 2004, she would have been 78. I enjoy imagining the scene when the inevitable request must have come from her publisher to come up with a more marketable title - her photos suggest a woman who doesn't suffer fools gladly. But in this case one has to think that there must have been a better title - "Old Filth" is a slightly offputting title which gives no indication of how terrific this book is.
FILTH is an acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong", which describes a particular sector of the British professional and civil service classes, with the not so subtle implication that those who chose to work in former outposts of the empire may not have done so as a first choice. The book is the story of Eddie Feathers, a successful Hong Kong barrister and so-called "Raj orphan", born in Malaya, orphaned, and returned to England to be educated. When the story opens, Feather is already retired; Gardam flashes back and forward along the timeline throughout the novel, so skillfully that it's never annoying. Although Eddie enjoys professional success, his emotional life is far more circumscribed and Gardam sketches its limits with subtlety, warmth and humor.
Even better, she continues the story in last year's "The Man in the Wooden Hat". While "Old Filth" explores the Feathers marriage (and the love triangle that prevents it from being emotionally fulfilling) from Eddie's viewpoint, the sequel presents events from the point of view of Betty, his wife. TMitWH accomplishes the amazing feat of not just matching the brilliance of OF, but improving on it.
The NY Times reviewer timesreview wonders how a writer of Jane Gardam's general awesomeness can remain neglected by U.S. readers who apparently find time to read the anemic maunderings of that one-note whiner Anita Brookner. To be honest, I'm a bit puzzled myself.
Thought-provoking, quirky, well-written. An unexpected pleasure from an author previously unknown to me. I keep expecting to see that it will be made...moreThought-provoking, quirky, well-written. An unexpected pleasure from an author previously unknown to me. I keep expecting to see that it will be made into a film, but possibly its quirkiness works against it. But I highly recommend the book. (less)
A hilariously entertaining book, whose charm is nearly impossible to convey adequately. This partial description is taken from one of the editorial re...moreA hilariously entertaining book, whose charm is nearly impossible to convey adequately. This partial description is taken from one of the editorial reviews on Amazon.com. I include it here just to give an idea of what the book is about, and to encourage you to check it out for yourself:
James Stephen George Boggs is not a con artist, he's a talented artist who deftly renders his own currency and "spends" it. Struck by the value of money, and what paper notes represent, he draws U.S. dollar bills, English pound notes, Swiss francs, and other forms of paper money; then he barters his illustrious artwork in lieu of cash to willing merchants who agree to honor his currency for services and products. In Boggs: A Comedy of Values, Lawrence Weschler, documents Boggs's whimsical antics, offering a quirky and lively meditation on the value of currency and workmanship and a richly informative (albeit brief) social history of money.(less)
An excellent, thoroughly readable, exploration of plagiarism. Mallon eschews the usual platitudes - the result is a fascinating and insightful discuss...moreAn excellent, thoroughly readable, exploration of plagiarism. Mallon eschews the usual platitudes - the result is a fascinating and insightful discussion of a topic of interest to writers and readers alike. I particularly enjoyed his musings on the possible motivation of plagiarists, their co-existing desires to conceal the fact of plagiarism with an apparent subconscious desire to be exposed. In this day and age, it seems impossible that anyone might expect to "get away with it", yet the practice continues, apparently unabated.(less)